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Cartier at the Legion of Honor

Cartier at the Legion of Honor

Martin Chapman, the curator of European decorative arts and sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has combined the private jewels (some of which have never been on display) and Cartier’s archival collection together in an amazing exhibition at the Legion of Honor. The jewels couldn’t have been displayed in a more significant venue.   Built in 1915 by the generosity of San Francisco heiress Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, The Palace of the Legion of Honor is a smaller replica of the ‘Palais de la Legion d’Honneur’ located in Paris.

There are two hundred works of jeweled art on display and each one has its own unique story and I’d love to tell them all.  Here is the description and a bit of lore of some of my favorites.


As I entered the dark room with lit cases the warm green glow of a large rare emerald immediately caught my attention.  Set in platinum with white clusters of hundreds of diamonds the necklace practically lit the room.  The reflections of the light from the contrasting colors were vibrant, rarely is an emerald of that size with the pure verdant color ever seen.  Commissioned in 1932 by the American Beatrice Mills, who became the Countess of Granard, Cartier created this platinum and rose cut diamond necklace around the center of a 143.23 carat fine rectangular emerald. This necklace is indicative of the geometric style of jewelry that the London Cartier was producing during the 1930’s.


In the center display case are the Art Deco rock crystal and diamond bracelets made in platinum.  Sold to the actress Gloria Swanson in 1930, the bracelets became her signature look and she wore them in her last film. Timeless in style, one could easily slip on these bracelets today.


On the cover of the catalog is the famous emerald and diamond shoulder brooch.  The photo of the brooch is impressive, but when you see it up close and personal it is truly an incredible jewel.  Larger than the photo depicts, this intricately and complex peice is designed to resemble a buckle with paved eight hundred round diamonds, it measures eight inches in length.  The large carved cabochon emeralds drop from white diamond encrusted platinum fluted shaped holders and rectangular caliber cut emeralds.  The circle of black enamel around the top of each emerald creates a subtle contrast to the white diamonds.  The 250 carats of carved Indian emeralds date to the seventeenth century Mughal period.  This type of engraving is very difficult because emeralds are a delicate and break easily.  The large flat center emerald has a later date inscription written in Farsi (Persian).  The jeweled piece was originally a pendant on a strand of emeralds which was sold to Mr. Williams in 1914 at the Cartier London for the enormous amount of  L10,000.00. Marjorie Merriweather Post, the American heiress to the cereal company and known as one of the richest women in America, purchased it in 1928 and had it converted into the brooch at Cartier NewYork. She wore the brooch in her portrait with her young daughter Nedenia painted by Giulio de Blaas.  More than just jewelry, this art is on permanent display at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C..

The “Star of South Africa” is one of the most historically important diamonds ever set in jewelry.  It was discovered in 1869 and created the “diamond rush.”


It’s a dream come true for all the princesses when you enter the room with eleven diamond tiaras to choose from–and two gorgeous diamond bandeaus!  Prior to WWI  wealthy Americans broke the rules and began wearing diamond tiaras which were originally created to be worn only for the royal families.  Mrs. Richard Townsend of Washington D.C., (coal and railroad money) was truly a queen at heart, she wore this incredible tiara with large diamonds made in platinum. In 1905 she also added this lacy diamond choker necklace and a ‘grand devant de corsage’ breast ornament of entwined roses and lilies, all in the style of Louis XVI.  If all these diamonds were worn at the same time, who could have possibly out sparkled her at the Paris Opera House?

Well possibly our own San Franciscan, Mrs. William K.Vanderbuilt, a tall beautiful woman who wore diamond bracelets, rings and necklaces to the diamond ensemble of tiaras, necklaces and stomachers.

One of the most unique tiaras is a crown of ‘waves of diamonds’ which were created to match the exact waves in the hair of Lila Vanderbuilt Sloane.  Designed in 1902 made in platinum and fine diamonds the style is modern and timeless—a girl could wear it today—providing of course she has the same wavy hair!

It was truly an honor to have participated in this historical exhibit contributing to the audio tour.

Janet Deleuse, All Rights Reserved

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