Cartier's Jewels For America's Rich And Famous In tough economic times, everyone needs a little dose of glitz and glamour. A popular exhibit in San Francisco showcases the "trinkets" that French jeweler Cartier made for mega-rich Americans — including the Vanderbilts, the Astors and, later, Liz Taylor and Grace Kelly.
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Cartier's Jewels For America's Rich And Famous

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Cartier's Jewels For America's Rich And Famous

Cartier's Jewels For America's Rich And Famous

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We have a little news this morning from the world of precious stones. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the Zale Corporation, the jewelry retailer, has let go three of its top executives. This move comes after a poor performance by the company over the holidays.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The chief financial officer, Matt Appel, isn't blaming the economy. He's quoted as saying it's clear somebody was selling jewelry this Christmas. It just wasn't us. The rival Signet Jewelers released figures yesterday showing it did far outshine Zale over the holidays.

INSKEEP: Now, the word bling does not begin to describe the dazzle on display right now at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Museum. The exhibition is called Cartier in America and it has precious pieces the French jeweler made over the years for this country's rich and famous. Here's NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.

(Soundbite of music, "Puttin On the Ritz")

Mr. FRED ASTAIRE (Singer): (Singing) Come, let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks or umbrellas in their mitts. Puttin' on the Ritz.

SUSAN STAMBERG: During the Great Depression, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gave adoring moviegoers a look at the deluxe.

(Soundbite of music, "Puttin On the Ritz")

Mr. ASTAIRE: Dressed up like a million dollar trooper trying hard to look like Gary Cooper. Super duper...

STAMBERG: These dreary economic days, crowds are flocking to the Cartier show in San Francisco. In tough economic times, people need fantasy, even if they can't pronounce it.

STAMBERG: Did you say broach(ph) or brooch(ph)?

Mr. MARTIN CHAPMAN (Curator): A broach(ph).

STAMBERG: Potato, potato, tomato, tomato - curator Martin Chapman is looking at a potato-sized pin that belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post, the Post cereal heiress, you know, Post Grapenuts, Post Toasties.

At Hillwood, her estate in Washington, D.C., there's a portrait of her wearing this brooch, an eight-inch-long cascade of diamond and green glitter.

Mr. CHAPMAN: And some people said she must have had a shoulder strap made of iron to hold this up because it's an enormous object made of seven carved Indian emeralds.

STAMBERG: A talented shopper, Majorie Merriweather Post was one of dozens of privileged Americans with big bank accounts and royal tastes who carried out an age-old custom of power adornment.

Mr. CHAPMAN: There is an ancient tradition in Europe that all the rulers - the princes of Europe - went into battle wearing all their best jewelry to act as a flag for their troops, but also as a way to buy themselves out of difficulties should they fall into enemy hands.

STAMBERG: Cartier made its reputation in the 1890s, so ancient princes went elsewhere for their battle gear. But gilded age Americans - Vanderbilts, Morgans, Astors, Goulds - got lots of their gilding from the French jeweler. In a 1909 photo, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt sports a tiara, necklace, bracelet.

Mr. CHAPMAN: But the real concentration is at the bosom, where she has a very large breast ornament which is made of fringed diamonds ending in tassels, and in the middle is a very large diamond rose, which she bought from Cartier in 1904.

STAMBERG: A few years earlier, for his coronation, Queen Victoria's luxury-loving son Edward had named Cartier his royal jeweler. Some of the tiaras fashioned for Edward the 7th's Coronation are in the San Francisco show: diamonds, platinum - nice.

In that same period, the jewelry Cartier made for Americans was often more elaborate, blingier, than what was made for British and European royals. As time went by, American tastes streamlined some.

Al Jolson, Grace Kelly, her engagement ring seen here for the first time, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, were all clients. So was an American divorcee who notoriously married into royalty.

Unidentified Woman #1: Exquisite.

Unidentified Woman #2: Absolutely fabulous.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible) in real life. I've seen many pictures of it, but never in real life.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes, it's unbelievable.

STAMBERG: The museum-goers are admiring a pin made for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. The Duke brought in a necklace and four gemstone bracelets and asked Cartier to take them all apart and reconfigure them.

Mr. CHAPMAN: There is an important sense of recycling at that point. And with those pieces, Cartier came up with this extraordinary fantasy object: a clip brooch, as it's called, in the form of a flamingo, with its plumage bristling with rubies and sapphires and emeralds � not naturalistic coloring at all.

STAMBERG: It's got to be three inches tall and the body - the neck, the beginning of the back, and the legs - the skinny little legs are diamonds. But as you say, the rest are not.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yes, absolutely.

STAMBERG: The pin was made in Paris in May 1940 � a month before the German invasion. The Windsors fled France and took the flamingo with them.

The British branch of the jewelry store got involved politically during World War II.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Cartier London was the center of the free French. They gave the upper floors to General de Gaulle. So Cartier was very patriotic during the war.

STAMBERG: The Paris store remained open throughout the war and kept producing objects, despite drastic shortages of luxury materials and money. They fashioned a golden cage, which enclosed a tiny bird.

Mr. CHAPMAN: It's made out of a very small amount of gold with coral, lapis wings and a diamond-set head.

STAMBERG: The pin was a subversive message from Cartier in protest against the Nazi occupation. In 1947, the jeweler made another bird and cage � but in this case the golden cage - the doors are open, yes?

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yes.

STAMBERG: And what you see is the bird emerging from it.

Mr. CHAMPMAN: Yes. Yes, that's the idea is - the joy of France emerging from the occupation of the Nazis.

(Soundbite of French national anthem)

STAMBERG: Bejeweled and costly stories of trials and triumphs, the exhibition Cartier and America is on view at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco until the middle of April.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of French national anthem)

INSKEEP: You can get a look at our jewelry display for nothing at npr.org -Elizabeth Taylor wearing a Cartier necklace and other spectacular photographs and images.

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