She lived in a world of parties, jewels and clothes, passing from one lover to another, unscrupulous, always looking for herself.
Louis saw her for the first time under the Ritz chandeliers, when the ‘City of Light’ was alight with excitement at the end of the First World War. Her elegance and charm making her almost untouchable, now thirty-one, but still the most desirable cocotte in all of Paris. Fifteen years before she arrived from Belgium, just a girl, with the young scion who refused to accept his family’s prohibition– «you will not marry her,» they told him and they sent her to a large hotel in the center of town. Jeanne, having escaped from a stepfather who molested her and her fate sealed, lived through the Belle Époque, from that moment on, as a leading actress. She lived in a world of parties, jewels and clothes, passing from one lover to another, unscrupulous, always looking for herself.
Louis Cartier, in his forties, was the most sought after bachelor in Paris. Louis and his two brothers had brought success to the company founded in 1847 by the grandfather who carried the same name, it had become jewelers to queens, kings and emperors. First the workshop, then the shop at 13 rue de la Paix – which is still there today. The first wristwatch for men, the Santos, was created after a request by an aviator friend who, up among the clouds, couldn’t pull his watch out of his waistcoat pocket. At the beginning of the century the London branch opens, and the branch in New York, the year before, moved into its amazing building on the Fifth Avenue. Louis had a disastrous romantic attachment in his past and even a daughter, but above all he had his work. Business. Travel. His overriding desire was to meet a woman who would not be intimidated by his character. He was looking for his panther. An animal that fascinated him since the artist George Barbier had created a watercolor painting of one languidly resting at the feet of a beautiful woman, which had been used years previously to launch a jewelry exhibition. That evening at the Ritz. Eyes meet, a hand brushed by a kiss. «Jeanne Toussaint, I have heard so much about you.» No answer, just a knowing smile, and her. They would have loved each other forever, even after the end of their semi-secret engagement and their respective marriages. Jeanne affectionately called him ‘boss’, particularly after 1933, when Louis appointed her Director of the Cartier Haute Jewelry, causing general perplexity – «but she doesn’t even know how to draw!» – his was, however, an investment in her extraordinary intuition and her ability to anticipate the times. But to him, Jeanne would always be his ‘panthère’. The panther of Cartier. Since then, the panther has represented the spirit of the Maison, and has become its symbol. In the Eighties, after the death of Toussaint in 1976, the women’s watch and in some way the celebrated Panther of Cartier – «not just a watch but a jewel» – became the emblem of a woman who breaks all the rules and faces the world, who has no fear in challenging masculine conceit nor, on the other hand, of showing the worth of her feminine side without timidity – just like Jeanne. Now the Paris brand is presenting a new edition of the icon, in a choice of nine versions: from steel to gold, in different colors and even in diamond. Once again, the panther is inserted on the face of the new Ronde Louis Cartier XL, named after Louis, the greatest love of the ‘panthère’. It is a thirty piece, limited-edition men’s watch. The watch face is embellished with diamonds and a majestic feline, created using the fire-gilding technique – the sheet of gold is heated to different temperatures according to the color required in each area. Craftsmanship and elegance; yes, Louis would have approved.
Luxury becomes such, when the ordinary becomes precious, or vice versa. When the ordinary becomes precious is the title of the exhibition presented by Cartier at the latest Salone del Mobile in Milan. The preparation for the exhibition has been curated by the artist Desi Santiago, Puerto Rican by birth and New Yorker by adoption, in the Garage Sanremo at the heart of Milan’s historic center. It is no accident it is in the ‘Garage’: the exhibition’s goal is to retrace the relationship between mechanics and jewelry, craftsmanship and design. Even the most valuable brooch is the result of hours of work, sweat and dirtied hands. Santiago, set designer and jewelry designer, has always been interested in commonplace items, those that transform material and our own environments. A vehicle hanging from the ceiling drips a golden liquid onto the floor instead of motor oil. Young men in mechanic overalls wander between the jewels and the tools of the trade, necklaces and pliers. The new collections – the collar Just a Clou and the bracelet Ecrou de Cartier – are translated into works hanging mid-air, made up of thousands of nails and cubes tied together by transparent threads. It is a tradition that continually renews itself and looks ahead, where the precious and the ordinary permeate each other. The secret of movement which won’t allow itself to be caged.
With the outbreak of the war, after the occupation of France by the Nazis, Louis chose to go to America. Years before in 1924, he had been married to Jacqueline, a young Hungarian noblewoman with whom he had a son, Claude. Jeanne was with Pierre Hély d’Oissel, an important industrialist and a patient man, who supported the unconcealed passion that still linked his woman and Cartier. Jeanne, for her part, managed the shop in Paris and launched ideas for new pieces, received sovereigns and Maharajas. In 1941, two Citroën cars stop outside the atelier in Rue de la Paix. Gestapo agents get out. A particular brooch, in the shape of a nightingale in the colors of the French flag closed in a gilded cage – called Bird in a Cage – was on display in the shop window. An unpardonable provocation. The Nazis enter the shop: «Where is Toussaint? Where is she?». In her fifties and with nothing to lose, she appears at the top of the stairs, her hand resting on the knob, a challenging look in her eye and her voice steady yet husky: «Here I am, let’s go.»
They take her to the Majestic Hotel, the Gestapo headquarters in the city. Jeanne knows half of the party officials, they were in the shop showing off their domineering arrogance in one of the most exclusive Paris locations. They interrogate her, the head of the Nazi police holds the brooch in his hand: «What is this, a provocation?» «“It’s a nightingale. A brooch like many others,» she replies. «And what can you tell me about De Gaulle in London?», he retorts. «In what sense?» «You know that General De Gaulle has made his London headquarters in the offices of Cartier in New Bond Street. And it is from there that he penned his famous 18th of June appeal.» «I have never set foot in London and I don’t speak English,» Jeanne replies blow for blow. Neither Louis or Pierre are there to support her. She must manage alone, as she always has. A few days locked up, then they let her go, thanks to the intervention from her friend Coco Chanel. Four years later, the same brooch reappears in the shop’s window. With a difference: the cage is open. And it has a new name: Bird freed