The Cartier fern-spray brooches

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2013 |

The beauty of the diamond contains within it the awesomeness of geological time. But for sheer scale and lavishness, diamond jewelry reached its climax during the relatively brief reign of Britain's Edward VII from 1901 to 1910. The conven­tions of evening court attire made it imperative that those in possession of a fortune wear a substantial quantity of spectacular and increasingly large diamond jewels-a state of affairs that kept the court jewelers' appointment books full to overflowing.

In the spring of 1903 King Edward paid an important state visit to Paris, which did much to pave the way for the signing of the so-called Entente Cordiale, a set of agreements between Britain and France that mostly concerned the complex boundaries between their respec­tive colonial possessions, above all in Africa. In the middle of his official engagements, the king paid a private but highly visible, and subsequently much-publicized, call on the House of Cartier in the rue de la Paix. He was shopping for diamonds. Cartier was one of a hand­ful of the most fashionable suppliers of magnificent jewels to wealthy British customers, but the coronation of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902 had cre­ated a strong spike in demand from London, and in 1904 the House of Cartier duly received a royal warrant as an official supplier of jewels to the Court of St. James's.

More broadly, like other Edwardian court jewelers Cartier benefited from three complementary and mutu­ally stimulating commercial trends: the immense and accelerating flow of diamonds from the De Beers mo­nopoly in the Transvaal region of South Africa; radical improvements in techniques of cutting (usually in Am­sterdam) and setting the stones; and the demand for what would now be called "client services," in other words the almost continual adaptation and modification of old jewels for new purposes, or even different head measure­ments in the case of diamond tiaras, diadems, or smaller clips, combs, and other hair ornaments. The wearing of tiaras, in particular, reached its peak in the Edwardian decade and was firmly established at court and at lavish private entertainments in great houses, though by convention they were never worn in hotels or restaurants.

The larger one's collection of magnificent jewels, the more constant the demand for these sometimes costly alterations. Many wealthy clients, led with particular enthusiasm by Queen Alexandra, spent much time and energy in close consultation with the representatives of Garrard, Boucheron, and Cartier, working out how to enhance or augment single necklaces or tiaras, or to substitute suites of differently-colored stones, or indeed to harvest and use them in other ways. Other aristo­cratic or merely wealthy clients continued to com­mission new and spectacular jeweled ornaments, such as the Countess of Essex's magnificent scroll tiara by Cartier, which consists of a mixture of cushion-shaped and round old-cut, and newer rose-cut diamonds set in silver and gold (Fig. 3).

At length, the continual campaigns of adaptation and alteration significantly weakened the frames of old jewels, so one response by in-house design­ers, and in particular the skilled workmen at Cartier, was to conceive ever more ingenious techniques for adapting and even combining separate jewels for various different uses, sometimes radically different. The spectacularly beautiful fern spray brooches in Figure 1(a-c) are an excellent case in point. They consist of old-cut "brilliants" in a platinum millegrain setting (a granular setting formed mechanically by strong pressure from a beaded wheel that produces an added shimmer to the light already playing over and through the stones) and were designed to be configured in a variety of different ways-as brooches, a stom­acher, a necklace, and even as a tiara.

The British, indeed pan-European, fascination with ferns, Pteridophyta, found expression in many branches of artistic production and deco­ration throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It has lately been described by the historian Sarah Whittingham as "fern fever." As she writes, "If you decorated and furnished your house, went to the seaside, strolled in pleasure gardens, patronized the theatre and concerts, visited exhibi­tions, read novels, played music, or spent time in hospital, you encountered ferns and ferneries." The delicacy and beauty of the undulating fronds of the multitudinous varieties of ferns brought to England from many parts of the Empire and far beyond, naturally translated into the jewelers' decorative vocabulary, but rarely with such re­finement and elegance as in the present case.

The brooches were commissioned by the stupendously wealthy Jewish financier and widower Sir Ernest Cassel, a close friend and private financial advisor to Edward VII. Sir Ernest intended them as a gift for his divorced sister Wilhemina ("Bobbie"), to whom he was devoted, and who was always known in later life as Miss Cassel. The genius of Cartier's exquisite fern-frond design is that the brooches were completely articulated from stem to tip, and therefore pleasingly malleable. They came with a group of spare, narrow frames and a tiny screwdriver with which they could be mounted together in a variety of ways-not merely as a pair of brooches to be worn side-by-side, straight, undulating, or else pinned at fetching or complementary diagonals (parallel or other­wise), but also joined together at the base and worn as a necklace, single stomacher, or corsage ornament (see Fig. 1a), similar in structure to Cartier's more literal and rather less schematic Lily stomacher of 1906 (Fig. 4). Yet another frame made it possible for Miss Cassel's lady's maid (Miss Cassel almost certainly did not wield the screwdriver her­self) to assemble the brooches into a com­paratively modest (modest, that is, in scale) tiara in the Egypto-Assyrian taste (Fig. 1c).

When the fern-spray brooches were de­signed and manufactured, ladies dress­ing for an evening court at Buckingham Palace might easily have worn, apart from their obligatory tiara, up to a dozen diamond collet chain necklaces; numerous ropes of pearls; two, three, or sometimes four stomachers at once; and a sequence of up to half a dozen large star, wheat-sheaf, lace (see Fig. 2), or honeysuckle brooches clustering around the low-cut bodice and at times securing sprays of orchids and other flowers; lap­pets; and a long white veil. The whole effect was further augmented by the regulation white ostrich-feather headdress-worn above and behind the tiara-two feathers for an unmarried lady, and three for the rest. The fabric of bodices was rein­forced with coarse canvas lining to support the weight of this cargo of clips, brooches, and stom­achers, and any sort of proto-modern aesthetic of restraint was completely unknown.

In this context, Cartier's fern-spray brooches were boldly forward-looking, a premonition of the rela­tive austerity displayed by Sir Ernest Cassel's niece, the Countess of Brecknock (to whom Miss Cassel eventually bequeathed the brooches) in a court-dress photograph of 1937 (Fig. 5). By this date conven­tions of court dress had relaxed in response to the trauma of World War and the Great Depression, so that apart from tiara, bracelets, rings, necklaces, honors and decorations, ostrich feathers, veil, and train, the overall effect was comparatively spare.

It seems likely, however, that the relative mod­esty of Cartier's fern-spray brooches for Cassel re­flected a degree of social vulnerability arising from mostly, but not always veiled, anti-Semitism, and also from the awkward fact of Miss Cassel's divorce. However, that she was in a position to wear them at all, and also had occasion to wear a tiara, is a strong indication that in this, no less than in almost every other respect, the brief Edwardian decade was a period of rapid social change, a "Grand Niagara," as Henry James put it, leading toward the disastrous chasm of World War I.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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