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Stepping beyond boundaries

 Tan Gim Ean
Tan Gim Ean  • 12 min read
Stepping beyond boundaries
All that glitters is better than gold at a joint show that connects craftsmen from the East and West who draw inspiration from foreign influences.
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All that glitters is better than gold at a joint show that connects craftsmen from the East and West who draw inspiration from foreign influences.

SINGAPORE (July 15): When influence and inspiration click, there is an explosion of ideas that blows your mind. Under the skilful hands of passionate craftsmen, these intangible gems can come to life as dazzling pieces that promise permanence. This is the feeling visitors get at the Beyond Boundaries: Cartier and the Palace Museum Craftsmanship and Restoration Exhibition in Beijing, where guides readily tell the story behind each creation.

The stories, told in front of the real objects, some of which are paired with archived ­images of owners wearing them — gain an immediacy that draws you in and has you blinking in amazement as you tour the three themed wings of the Meridian Gate Gallery: Chinese Inspirations, Symbols of Power and Time Memories.

Beyond Boundaries is the third collaboration between Cartier and the Forbidden City, after Cartier Treasures — Jeweller to Kings, King of Jewellers in 2009, and a joint restoration project between 2014 and 2017 at the Cartier Manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, that focused on six watch and clock movements of English origin from the museum’s collections. Chinese restoration experts worked on the external appearance of the timepieces while Cartier took care of their movements.

But the French jeweller and watchmaker’s friendship with China goes back to October 1996, when the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art installed the Pot doré (Golden pot) by Jean-Pierre Raynaud in the courtyard of the Palace Museum. This initial contact, billed as Where Two Boundaries Meet, led to subsequent shows in Shanghai, Taipei, Shenyang and Chengdu.

Way before all these, the company founded in 1847 by Louis-­François Cartier mentioned “Chinese-style” objects in its account registers in the 1870s. And from the 1920s, it produced numerous pieces decorated with Chinese motifs, mainly dragons and chimeras, thanks to materials salesman Jules Glaenzer, the first Cartier employee to visit China in 1909, brought back.

Friendship, mutual respect for expertise and excellence, appreciation for the cultural connections between the East and West, an understanding of the need to protect cultural heritage and the will to share a common vision are factors that shaped Beyond Boundaries, which opened on June 1 and runs until July 31.

The more than 800 items on show are from the ­Cartier Collection and its archives, the collections of the Palace Museum and public institu­tions — including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Qatar Museums, Doha; and Musée international d’hor­logerie, La Chaux-de-Fonds — as well as private and royal collections. Dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the present, they reveal a charming curiosity about the world, an openness to foreign influences, and boldness to follow new trends and change with the times.

Chinese inspirations made a deep imprint on Cartier’s designs, evident in the materials (jade, lacquer, coral and mother-of-pearl) and motifs (the dragon, phoenix, carp, Chinese characters and flowers) used to fashion or decorate vanity cases, clocks, vases and bejewelled accessories.

The dragon and phoenix, celestial creatures that symbolise authority and prosperity respectively, and the central motifs of imperial robes on show in the West wing, inspired Cartier to create two brooches — one circa 1920 of two dragons playing around a pearl and the other, a special 1948 order called Bird, famed for its various cuts of diamonds.

Louis Cartier, one of the founder’s three grandsons who established the brand name worldwide, had a personal interest in far-off cultures and collected works on art, among them an ancient Chinese screen decorated with birds, which he shared with his designers. These Oriental wonders, which gained popularity as China opened its doors to the West, fanned their imagination and spawned designs that fed the growing demand for jewellery sets and objects layered with Chinese aesthetic.

At the entrance to the central wing of Beyond Boundaries is a glass panel lined with portraits of royalty wearing intricate tiaras, strands of chains, huge pendants, dangling earrings, chunky bangles and bracelets and colourful ceremonial jewels — symbols of power and prestige.

Monarchs from the European and other courts pictured gazing into the distance and adorned with the very items on display — such as Queen Marie of Romania’s huge sapphire pendant and Princess Lilian de Réthy of Belgium’s wristwatch — connect the past and present and remind us that a thing of beauty is a joy forever. A photograph of Princess Grace of Monaco wearing her Cartier engagement ring, tiara and necklace captures the star quality that made her a Hollywood favourite.

At the turn of the 20th century, Louis Cartier began using platinum in his jewellery for its sparkle and solidity, and undertook research on mastering volume and light. Innovation led to the birth of a modern style that spread at the same time as a new business elite emerged in the US and married European aristocrats. These high-society American women lost little time in commissioning or acquiring jewellery that stamped their ­social status.

Among the glittering displays are an amethyst, turquoise and diamond necklace made specially for socialite Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, after her marriage to Edward, Duke of Windsor, who gave up his crown for love, and a necklace of platinum and diamonds capped with a cushion-shaped polished 143.23-carat emerald belonging to Lady Granard, an American heiress married to an English earl.

Creating pieces prized by ­royals and nobles won Cartier the nickname “Jeweller to Kings, King of Jewellers”, as well as warrants that bestowed it the title of ­official purveyor.

The timepieces on show in the East wing no longer tick, but a watchmaker will tell you that his craft enables dialogue between technique and design, inspiration and savoir faire, and East and West — the last evident in the Chinese-inspired Cartier clocks shown alongside European-style creations from the Palace Museum’s collections.

Don’t miss Cartier’s mystery clocks, whose platinum and diamond hands appear to float in the transparent dial, with no obvious connection to the movement. A screen clock from 1926 made of an ancient engraved white jade plaque and decorated with an enamelled dragon on the back transports visitors back in time to the abodes of ancient Chinese scholars, where they sit behind study screens.

Small pieces from over a century ago that made a big impact on watchmaking evoke wistful time memories. Among these are the Santos, the first wristwatch for men invented in 1904 to replace the pocket watch; the Tonneau (1906), which fits the curve of the wrist; the Tank (1917) and the Crash (1967), designed to look like a watch damaged in a crash.

Cartier has an engaging story to tell about its ongoing East-West dialogue. In May 1914, days before World War I broke out, a young man stepped into its Rue de la Paix boutique in Paris and registered his name as “Prince Tsai Lun”. Over several visits, he bought a vanity case, a handbag, a Tortue wristwatch and a pencil.

The dapper client was Aisin Gioro-Tsai Lun, the great-great-grandson of Emperor Qianlong. His father Yi Kuang served under the last three emperors of the Qing dynasty and was minister of foreign affairs.

Fortune and travel had exposed Tsai Lun to Western fashion and he sought it from Cartier. If the Qing dynasty had not fallen in 1912, and with it imperial rule in China, who knows what this Oriental dandy would have done to influence his peers?

Reaching for beauty and excellence

Cartier image, style and heritage director Pierre Rainero describes the maison’s style as “a language that evolves with its times and lifestyles, due to the scope of a continually enriched vocabulary and the strength of well-established grammar. It is a living language serving a vision, that of its founders, [who were] convinced of the artistic dimension that jewellery can and must offer”.

Rainero, in Beijing for the opening of Beyond Boundaries: Cartier and the Palace Museum Craftsmanship and Restoration Exhibition, credits Louis Cartier (1875-1942) with creating a specific language for the brand and attempting to do things never done before — evident from the exhibits in the Forbidden City.

In 1933, Louis appointed a non-family member, and a woman — Jeanne Toussaint, nicknamed “the Panther” — as Cartier’s director of fine jewellery. Toussaint defined a fresh vision of femininity by using motifs (such as the creature that became her personal emblem) and materials sourced from faraway lands.

Louis relied on his studio of “inventors” to fashion new pieces. He gave them tools, such as a library stocked with books on the study of the art and history of different cultures, which establishes the relationship between objects and the origin of their inspiration. He organised long trips to China and brought back materials and drawings, such as kingfisher feathers, which feature in the dial of a Cartier desk clock.

“Thanks to his philosophy and values, we are very faithful to the symbolic value of the designs that inspire the designers,” says Rainero. “That is also why what you see here are artistic objects with content. They are totally appropriate for the lifestyle of the people who will use them, and you’ll have an idea of permanence in terms of the artistic dimension.”

Cherishing the past and integrating it with the present, and then projecting it into the future with the aim of sharing are among his responsibilities. “We look at continuity [in our work] and values,” he says.

After 35 years with the company — the Frenchman joined Cartier in Paris as international advertising manager — that is “proud of its pioneering spirit, exceptional know-how and audacious creativity inspired by diverse cultures”, Rainero, 61, continues to discover new things.

Among the exhibits in Beyond Boundaries is an intricately embroidered cheongsam that belonged to Madame Wellington Koo, a long-time client who wrote in her autobiography about wearing her “new tiara which Papa had bought at Cartier’s” to a reception given by Lord and Lady Astor in honour of the Crown Prince of Japan, who became Emperor (Akihito).

Madame Koo, born Oei Hui-Lan, was the heiress of a grand Chinese family that owned a sugar empire. She grew up in Java, then Europe, married diplomat Wellington Koo in 1920 and lived in Washington, New York, Geneva and Paris, before settling in Beijing in 1923.

A polyglot who enjoyed liberty and financial autonomy, she hobnobbed with high society and was known for her collection of jade objects and antique porcelains. The Cartier Archives has a photograph of a jadeite pendant shaped like a green pepper that she acquired from the atelier. The tiara mentioned in Hui-Lan Koo: Madame Wellington Koo, An Autobiography, as told to Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer, comprises five circles of diamonds and bay leaves.

Madame Koo was among the strong, modern women influenced by the East and West for whom Cartier created stunning pieces that reflected their good taste. Another was Barbara Hutton, granddaughter of the founder of the Woolworths retail chain, known for her priceless jewellery collection.

One piece that stood out in the exhibition is a jadeite necklace with beads cut from the same boulder. The beads are said to be of a shape close to perfection. The necklace, offered to Hutton on the occasion of her wedding to Prince Alexis Mdivani in 1933, had a clasp adorned with a marquise-cut diamond made by the maison in New York. In 1934, she had it replaced by Cartier Paris with one set with calibré-cut rubies.

Rainero, who assumed his current position in 2003, oversees all contemporary Cartier designs, communications and strategy-related issues, and the archiving of documents concerning creation, production, commercialisation and correspondence. He also supervises the Cartier Collection, which represents more than 1,300 historical pieces today.

He considers Beyond Boundaries a milestone in his career. “I am thrilled to work with people with such a level of knowledge. It establishes a sort of benchmark. On the other side of my responsibility, which is current style, is study. For me, it’s like an objective to study the revolution of our style. I know everything we do today, all the decisions we take in terms of artistic revolution, will be screened in the future,” he says.

That places a double level of responsibility on him “to be at the same height of work as our predecessors because what we bring as new and beautiful to Cartier today will be recognised as milestones in the future, and we want our successors to be proud of our generation. So, it’s a good thing to be in a company that works on the idea of continuity”.

What would a visitor who knows nothing about jewellery get from this exhibition? “When we talk about objects and aesthetic and style, sometimes we forget there is a human dimension. The last part of the exhibition underlines that human part,” says Rainero. “Everything that’s shown is beautiful, and from beauty, you experience pleasure. Even if you don’t go into any explanation, when you leave the exhibition, you will smile. That is already something. There’s a sort of pride about being human and sharing common values, and attempting to reach excellence, beauty and going beyond.”

Admission to Beyond Boundaries: Cartier and the Palace Museum Crafts­manship and Restoration Exhi­bition is free, but visitors have to buy a ticket to enter the Palace Museum. Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 8.30am to 5pm (the ticket counter closes at 4pm). Tickets are priced at RMB60, with a 50% concession for visitors aged 60 and above. Free admission for children under 1.2m in height. For online bookings, visit

Tan Gim Ean is an assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia

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