Cartier and the Use of Natural Materials (Part 3)

By Olivier Bachet


Coral is a living polyp, which lives in colonies, and forms an external calcareous skeleton, which can reach the size of underwater reefs. It occurs in several nuances of red, white, and a pink called “Angel skin” and is frequently used in jewelry. From the beginning of the 20th century, purveyors of coral, such as Herbet Frères who had factories in Naples, Genoa, and Livorno, were amongst those who supplied the House. However, at the time, it was only used on the rare occasion to make accessories or objects. It started to be used more frequently during the 1920s. Due to its arborescent growth underwater, the size of coral was limited. It was for this reason — with the exception of ancient Chinese elements already sculpted, such as the head of a large chimera acquired in the 1920s and mounted as a paperknife in 1943, or a long piece carved into fruit and mounted as a parasol handle in 1928 — that the only coral elements used by Cartier were modest in size.

The small size of coral elements did not present the same disadvantage for jewelry making as it did for objects. It was also after the First World War that the use of coral became widespread in the manufacture of jewelry. All different shades were used, although red coral, the most expensive, was most frequently found in small touches on the House’s jewelry. Some pieces were carved at the head of chimeras to form elements of bracelets or jabot elements in the Chinese taste. More precisely, these elements in the shape of a chimera’s head “combined the tradition of animal-head bangles of the ancient Mediterranean, the Indian makara, the Chinese dragon and even African variants,” writes Hans Nadelhoffer in his book “Cartier: Jewelers Extraordinary”. Louis Bozzacchi’s workshop in the rue de Turenne was entrusted with carving the chimera forms. In 1922, Louis Cartier ordered a bangle made of two chimera heads of carved coral with bejeweled combs and two carved spherical emerald (Fig. 1). In 1923, this bangle was followed by a chimera jabot pin also ordered by Louis Cartier for his wife (Fig. 2).

Although the neoclassical style had gone out of fashion in Paris, the Cartier branch adapted its production and made pieces in this taste to cater to New York where neoclassical elegance remained appealing. This is the case of a beautiful jabot-pin decorated with a Greek mask (Fig. 3). As a bead, cabochon, or sugarloaf (Fig. 4), coral served as secondary motifs on necklaces, brooches, or bracelets, or were placed on the top of perfume bottles (Fig. 5), on handbag clasps (Fig. 6) or on the tops of lids. Sculpted into rods and half cylinders, they covered vanity cases and desk clocks (Fig. 7). As in the field of jewelry, they were used especially on Oriental and Chinese-inspired pieces where the coral was often carved as figurative details. Chimera heads were placed on smoking sets. A sculpted seated dog was set on the top of a pen. An Egyptian head covered with a Nemes was applied to a handbag clasp made in onyx, and small Chinese plaques, sculpted as an effigy of Buddha, were placed at the center of some vanity cases. Lastly, small branches of coral were mounted realistically on some objects to give them a natural aspect.

Despite the crisis at the beginning of the 1930s and the progressive abandoning of expensive materials and intricate decor, coral remained a frequently used material. Its colour allowed for a contrast with black and lacquer used on a multitude of objects and jewels, the most famous being undoubtedly the ladybug brooch (Fig. 8). In many cases, it remained the only coloured element to brighten up finished objects. In the 1940s, the strong contrast between red and yellow gold, which characterised production at the time, permitted coral to be used as decorative elements on a large number of accessories, handbag clasps, vanity cases, powder cases, etc. Sometimes, it was used in a much larger scale, for example, on a yellow gold clock, reminiscent of the oriental fashion of the “Roaring Twenties”, where a statuette sculpted in coral was the central decoration. After World War II, coral continued to be used extensively, often in the manufacture of many different types of brooches. It formed the face of a beefeater (Fig. 9), ducks’ feet (Fig. 20 and Fig. 11), or the shell of a turtle. In these cases, orange coral became the norm, the beautiful red coral becoming almost impossible to find.

Cartier and the Use of Natural Materials (Part 2)

Written by Olivier Bachet


Tortoiseshell comes from the backs of tortoises. Translucent, amber in colour, spotted with brown or red markings, or pale yellow with brown or black marbling depending on the species, it was regularly used by Cartier. At the beginning of the XXth century, a multitude of merchants supplied the jeweller with raw material. Amongst them Chatenet and Latouche not far from rue de la Paix, Prével, MacPherson & Billy, both established on rue de Turbigo supplied combs, fans, lorgnette handles, knitting hook tips, fountain pen sleeves, mirrors and a variety of other elements. Tortoiseshell’s easy malleability when heated allowed goldsmiths to use it to cover objects with uneven surfaces.

Blackamoor brooch, Cartier-Paris, 1968
Gold, enamel, emerald and tortoiseshell (Courtesy of Palais Royal)

A pair of gold opera glasses were thus covered with a beautiful transparent blond tortoiseshell which meant that the gold’s guilloché aspect could be seen, giving it the appearance of orange enamel (see illustration). To accentuate the preciousness of these objects made with tortoiseshell, small gold dots were inlaid into the surface using the “piqué” technique. Very fashionable in the XVIIIth century, this technique meant that the goldsmith drew the desired pattern on the tortoiseshell and then after piercing the required spaces, he heated the tortoiseshell to enlarge the hole in which he was to place the gold decor. The eventual cooling down of the tortoiseshell imprisoned the gold motif definitively. During the period between the two Wars, large pieces made in tortoiseshell were gradually abandoned. Although a few desk clocks with folding struts and some simple table cigarette boxes were made, its main use was for combs and for the backs of mirrors for vanity cases. Although blond tortoiseshell was mostly used at Cartier, the brown tortoiseshell was also used for some elements as for the comb illustrated here. With the 1929 economic crisis, the workmanship required, as well as the material’s price, meant that its use was gradually abandoned, to be replaced with synthetic substances such as celluloid and Bakelite.

Some desk clocks were also covered in lacquer imitating tortoiseshell such as a model in the shape of a sea mine, registered for Paris stock on 11th December, 1930 and described in the archives as “a spherical clock in tortoiseshell lacquer.” After the Second World War, its use remained about the same as before and other than for a small desk clock by Cartier-London whereby the dial was made using brown tortoiseshell, it was no longer used to make important pieces, as had been the case at the beginning of the century.

As far as jewellery is concerned, the use of tortoiseshell developed particularly in the 1960s with a series of jewels that met with great success: the Blackamoor clips. Representing proud African warriors, these clips, which appear in the shape of a gold bust often adorned with precious stones and a head engraved in brown tortoiseshell, have become icons of jewellery (see Illustration).

Like ivory and for the same reasons related to the protection of wildlife, the use of tortoiseshell in jewellery has now completely disappeared.

Cartier and the Use of Natural Materials: Ivory

By Olivier Bachet

Since the dawn of mankind, man has been making jewellery from shells, amber and teeth. Amulets, liturgical figurines as well as grips on spears were sculpted in natural materials for which man had easy access. Inspired by these ancient human traditions, Cartier introduced a certain number of natural materials originating from the worlds of flora and fauna into the making of their jewellery and objects which they offered to their clientele. We shall describe different articles the main elements which were used and for which their use has been known since the beginning of time bearing in mind that Cartier has used throughout its history, elements which few people could even imagine being used in the making of an art object, such as a carved, openwork stork’s beak which covered the extremities of a vanity case made in Paris in 1926.


All civilisations have drawn upon ivory to make objects which have been both practical as well as decorative. It comes from mammal tusks. It can be assumed that the ivory used by Cartier comes from elephant tusks even though it is possible that some ivory came from other species such as narwhal, hippopotamus, walrus and even boar.

During the Belle Epoque, ivory was not rare and its use was diversified and widespread. Cartier used it mainly for secondary elements, that is, for elements on the inside or elements which were hidden including for example, the supporting plaques of dance cards or beneath an object such as table bells. In this case, the ivory plaque was stamped with Cartier’s signature using delicate cursive letters as well as the inventory number of the piece.

Easy to sculpt, ivory was also used to make more visible and elaborate elements such as the perches for lovebirds, owls and parakeets. Easy to dye, Cartier also used it to create the branches on a Japanese cherry tree in 1907.

When the size of the tusks or the teeth allowed, the goldsmith didn’t hesitate to make pieces whereby ivory was the principal material. In 1910 and 1912, including those with a folding strut, many round, square and arched desk clock models were made in ivory.

In the 1920s, the use of ivory in the manufacture of objects became more restrained. Some pieces continued to be made in ivory as its whiteness allowed for bold contrasts with enamel or coloured gemstones as was found on a vanity case from 1927 which was decorated with sapphires and emeralds. However, at the time, this did not represent most of the production at rue de la Paix. On the contrary, the use of ivory in the manufacture of jewellery was increasing. In 1919, Cartier began to produce the famous « Sudanese » bracelets, directly inspired by traditional African jewellery. The body of these bracelets was most often made of ivory with some enamelled motifs and the ends in coral, jade or onyx. An organic porous material, ivory is sensitive to dehydration. Fragile, it can crack with time and its beautiful cream color tends to yellow.

The development of synthetic materials such as bakelite, galalith and ebonite creating the illusion of ivory meant that these new materials could replace ivory. This was the case for the ivory casing of a Chinese desk clock which was replaced in the Cartier workshops by an ebonite casing which was more resistant to the ravages of time. After the Second World War, the use of white chalcedony, both resistant and easy to obtain, was frequently used in the manufacture of jewellery and tends to replace ivory. It is only in the 1960s that we find again pieces made of ivory. Its ease to be carved allows for example to perfectly render the delicate petals of white roses which, mounted on a brooch, will meet a great success. Since the end of the 1990s, awareness of the fragility of nature and the desire to protect wildlife has imposed a total ban on ivory. It is a safe bet that Cartier, like other great jewellers, will never again use ivory in its creations.