How Cartier Turned its Heritage Into an Asset for Museums

How do you tell a story through jewellery? That’s the question Renée Frank has been asking since 1993, when she first joined Cartier’s Tokyo office as a press attachée. She soon began coordinating events, including some for the Fondation Cartier d’art contemporain. “I had the chance to work on a Cartier collection exhibition which took place at the Teien Art Museum in Tokyo,” she says. “I really discovered the Cartier collection. I fell in love with it.”

Today, Frank is based in Paris, where she is the project director for exhibitions in Cartier’s heritage department, which includes archivists and curators who oversee more than 3,600 objects dating back to 1860. Together, they work with museums and other institutions around the world to exhibit those objects, either in standalone exhibitions like last year’s Cartier & Women show at the Hong Kong Palace Museum, or as part of other exhibitions where Cartier jewellery proves historically or thematically relevant. 

What makes Cartier’s efforts unusual in the world of fine jewellery is that these exhibitions aren’t commercial, at least not in the strictest of senses. “We have a certain autonomy,” says Frank. “Most of the time it’s not an initiative by Maison Cartier, it’s an initiative by the museums who come to us and say, ‘We’d like to have an exhibition.’ That was the case for the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in 2018. Because we have direct relationships with museums, sometimes we have exhibitions in countries that are not considered priorities [in terms of sales and marketing]. That was the case in Mexico in 1999.” (She notes that Mexico later became a valuable market for Cartier, where its second exhibition Cartier Design: A Living Legacy was held in 2023)

In other words, these aren’t ready-made exhibitions put together by Cartier’s marketing team in order to sell more jewellery or raise brand awareness, although that is certainly a helpful side effect for the company. Instead, they’re independently curated shows that use the company’s collection to tell stories of life, art, culture, history and craftsmanship. “[It] is far more than just expensive jewels on show,” wrote Australian art critic Gina Fairley in a five-star review of the Canberra show. “There is a sense of journey, as historic punctuations are played out with colour, as rooms change tone with various themes, and geographic fascinations filter their way into Cartier designs.”

Many of these exhibitions rely on the work of acclaimed architects and designers such as Norman Foster, Elizabeth Diller, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Sylvain Roca. The Canberra show, along with Cartier & Women, was designed by Nathalie Crinière, one of France’s most acclaimed exhibition designers, who first worked with Cartier for a show at the Denver Art Museum in 2014. She will be speaking at Knowledge of Design Week 2024 here in Hong Kong.

“It’s challenging because of two things,” says Crinière, speaking over the phone as she is taking a train between meetings. First, the objects are precious and valuable. “When you install the [display] case there is a long protocol with a lot of people involved,” she says. “There’s a lot of security.” But perhaps the greatest challenge is finding a way to design the exhibition in such a way that it has a compelling narrative. The objects on display aren’t enormous art installations that command attention; they’re small and intricate. “People need to understand what they are,” says Crinière. 

To do that, she builds a thematic structure around each object or group of objects. “We need to find surprises,” she says. “If you see our exhibitions, the ambiance following the [themes] are always different. Sometimes we make a big showcase where we can have different jewels speaking all together. We allow people to go in the front and the back because jewels are interesting on all sides. It’s also interesting to present them with the people who wore them.” Cartier & Women detailed the lives of collectors ranging from the Duchess of Windsor to Hong Kong celebrity Carina Lau. 

Crinière was herself surprised by just how interesting these pieces of jewellery can be: the intricate design, the quality of the precious stones, the history of each piece and the people who acquired and used it. “The first time I worked with [Cartier], I went to Geneva to see the objects directly without a case,” she says. “At the beginning, I was not so interested in jewellery. But I really discovered how interesting it is.”

Cartier’s history began in 1847, when French jeweller and watchmaker Louis-François Cartier took over and revamped the luxury goods shop where he worked. The brand grew slowly. At first, Cartier sourced what he considered to be novel and imaginative objects from various manufacturers and sold them under his own name; his selection of products soon caught the eye of the French aristocracy, including Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. But it wasn’t until Cartier’s son and grandsons became involved that the company expanded globally, earning a reputation for watches and jewellery designed with finesse. In 1904, when Brazilian aviator Alberto Carlos-Dumont complained to Louis-Joseph Cartier — Louis-François’ grandson — that it was cumbersome to check his pocket watch while flying, Cartier designed him one of the world’s first wristwatches, a model that is still produced today. 

In 1972, Cartier’s founding family sold the company to a group of investors who continued its worldwide expansion. The collection was started in 1983, a year before the founding of the Fondation Cartier, which spearheaded Cartier’s support of the arts. “Most of the pieces have been bought back through trade or auctions,” says Frank, who explains that the collection is roughly split between jewellery, timepieces and precious objects. “These pieces have lived their own lives and belonged to several people over the very long time from their creation.”  

You might be wondering, why is there no Cartier museum? Frank says the answer is simple. “The reason there is no museum is because the aim of this collection is to be shared with the public,” she says. “Not only through larger retrospectives dedicated to Cartier but also thanks to various exhibitions which include some cartier pieces. It can include an exhibition on the history of jewellery, tiaras, gold, pearls. We always have loans to museums. It’s part of our mission to be accessible to cultural institutions.”

Frank says that these exhibitions and the research they entail have revealed some fascinating and otherwise overlooked aspects of Cartier’s legacy. She cites Cartier Islamic Inspiration and Modern Design first held at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris before moving to Dallas and Abu Dhabi last year. “In terms of curatorial richness, [this] exhibition was a very deep journey into our history,” she says. “There was an intuition that Islamic art was important in building Cartier’s style, the decoration, the colour combinations. But we needed to have a scientific demonstration of this.”

There have been other eye-opening exhibitions over the years. Frank says one of her favourites was Cartier Design Viewed by Ettore Sottsass, which debuted at Berlin’s Vitra Design Museum in 2002 before touring to the Palazzo Reale in Milan, the Daigoji Temple in Kyoto and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Sottsass was a renowned Italian architect who founded the Memphis Group in 1980, ushering in a new era of postmodern design that valued bold, clashing colours and motifs. “This was the first exhibition where he chose to show pieces not in relationship with their history or belonging or even craftsmanship,” says Frank. “It was very intuitive. He put pieces together because of the materials and colour.”

There’s a lot more coming up. Cartier, Crystallization of Time is on show at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul until June 30, and there are exhibitions coming up soon in Tokyo and Shanghai. There are also plans for more exhibitions in Asia in the new few years. “There are a lot of topics which could be explored,” says Frank. “It’s endless if you consider all the pieces from the collection, all the curiosity from the curatorial community. There are a lot of possibilities.”

All photos are courtesy of Cartier 

Nathalie Crinière will speak at this year’s Knowledge of Design Week which runs from June 25 to 27, 2024 with a special focus on crafting exceptional experiences in exhibitions.  Click here for more information.

This story was produced with the support of bodw+. Zolima CityMag maintains editorial independence over its content. To read this story on bodw+, please click here.

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