The timeless allure of East meets West

Justin Roberts, Jewellery Specialist, Historian and Lecturer looks at this long-standing love affair which has resonated through the centuries.

In November 1926 James de Rothschild, the founder of the French branch of Rothschild bank, ordered thirty four miniature flower vases from Cartier to be given as Christmas presents.

The commission comprised four different designs, three of which were set with lacque burgauté panels. The vases were inspired by late 19th century Japanese snuff bottles and each contained a magic barometer flower which would change colour from pink, blue and lilac according to the weather. The panels depicted Oriental landscapes with figures and buildings and were supplied by L. Michon Frère and the Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes, while some panels were already held in stock by Cartier. Produced by Lavabre for Cartier Paris, these special gifts demonstrate the appeal of Asian art for Cartier, and the successful, harmonious integration of Chinese and Japanese motifs in their output.

A gold mounted laque burgauté vase made by Lavabre for Cartier Paris, 1926
Given as a Christmas present in 1926 by Baron James Armand de Rothschild (1878-1957) of Waddesdon Manor. This is one of the thirty four vases in four designs commissioned from Cartier by the Baron in November 1926.
Each of the vases contained a novelty rose spray attached to a card inscribed: THE MAGIC BAROMETER FLOWER
This little flower you mast grant
Is something of a sensitive plant.
Place it in the open air.
T'is pink when stormy, blue when fair,
And turns a lovely lilac hue,
When undecided which t'will do.
Provenance: From the Estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe | Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Cartier’s use of lacquer was original and widespread, taken from trays, bowls and boxes, Cartier also incorporated these panels into cigarette boxes, vanity cases and clock faces.

A gold, enamel and gem-set compact by Cartier, circa 1925, the lid set with a laque burgauté plaque depicting fishermen in a boat. It is stamped with the maker’s mark for Alfred Langlois | The compact will be offered at auction by Phillips in Geneva on 6th November 2023

A silver, gold, ebonite, enamel, mother-of-pearl, nephrite, jadeite, ruby, sapphire and diamond box, Cartier, 1926. Set with two circular laque burgauté Chinoiserie panels | Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Intriguingly, the design archives of Cartier London contain a rare design for a powder box set with lacquer panels, the purplish tints of the mother-of-pearl inlay set off with amethyst.

Of course the West’s interest in Chinese and Japanese art has endured for centuries, from the early ceramics that found their way back to the West during the Crusades to the appeal of oriental lacquer and porcelain as seen in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A Chinese porcelain vase, early 18th century, with French ormolu mounts, c. 1750. This large Chinese porcelain vase with unusually elaborate and sculptural gilt-bronze mounts offers a spectacular example of the transformation that can be effected by the addition of mounts. The profile of the vase is radically changed, and the profusion of curving metal shapes creates a quintessential expression of French Rococo taste | Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Although inevitably adapted and embellished, the West’s love of all things Eastern has a long tradition. Cartier was in effect continuing this practise with a modern audience through its production of jewels and objects inspired by China and Japan.

Cartier’s Orient-influenced creations can be divided into two clear groups: those that incorporated actual Chinese or Japanese elements and those using Oriental themes. Chinese jade table screens adapted as desk clocks, jade belt hooks converted to brooches and jade seals transformed into sautoirs and pendant watches were just some of the pieces produced by Cartier.

Jade, rock crystal, sapphire, diamond and emerald brooch, Cartier, circa 1925. The rectangular Chinese jade plaque dating from the 19th century is engraved at the front with a traditional garden scene and on the reverse with a female figure under a blossoming tree.
Published: Celebrating Jewellery, p. 155 | Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's

A rock crystal and diamond brooch, Cartier, 1920s, set at the centre with a red enamel panel of Chinese inspiration | Photo:
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

In some respects, they were continuing the well-established European habit of embellishing Oriental works of art with jewelled mounts. Whereas, at the other end of the design scale Chinese and Japanese subjects can be found throughout Cartier’s entire inventory. Chinese geometric patterns and Japanese clouds were widely deployed, mostly on boxes and vanity cases, and they were so often used that their Oriental origins can be easily overlooked and mistaken instead as emanating from Art Deco’s fashionable stable of designs. The striking iconic ring and tassel pendants or shoulders brooches created by Cartier during the 1920s were ultimately sophisticated copies of traditional Chinese pendants.

An emerald, coral and onyx pendant brooch, Cartier, circa 1925 | Christie's Images Ltd.

A white jade pendant and ring, Qing Dynasty | Photo:

Cartier’s own Oriental store cupboard was rich and varied, running from flower baskets, knots and the ruyi symbol to treatments taken from archaic Chinese bronzes, while many interlaced dragons are to be found in Cartier’s London design books. The presence of dragons in Chinese culture dates back to neolithic time and their stylised, interlaced shapes often feature on archaic bronze vessels.

Rock crystal, onyx and diamond dragon brooch, Cartier Paris, 1925
The brooch was sold the same year to Mrs Richard H. Townsend, a prominent member of Washington society | Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

A jade dragon from Hongshan, Inner Mongolia, China. Dating to between 4500 and 3000 BCE, it is the earliest known depiction of a dragon | National Museum of China, Beijing

Bronze vase with archaistic design, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). Note the stylised interlaced dragons in the third decorative band | Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Oriental impact can be seen in Cartier’s pieces from before the First World War, their early geometric jewels utilising Chinese and Japanese linear patterns.

The Oriental colour palette favoured contrasting colours, with blue and green a much-seen combination, along with red contrasted with black and green. However, the vogue for jade was supreme and it became a formidable fixture in the aesthetics of the 1920s. No other material was so firmly associated with the Orient, and it was used by all the leading jewellery houses. Even American Vogue ran an advertisement for imported Chinese jade jewellery with the title of ‘East meets West’. Chinese jade jewellery mounted in silver and low carat gold would satisfactorily achieve the desired look, however for the more adventurous Chinese jade was set into fashionable Art Deco jewels re-imagined to cater for European tastes. Mandarin court necklaces were re-assembled to form flappers’ sautoirs and large Chinese carved jade beads were split in half to decorate brooches and bracelets.

An amber and jadeite court necklace, chao zhu Qing dynasty, 19th century | Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

A carved jade, onyx, seed pearl and diamond sautoir, Cartier, 1920s | Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

In 1924 Cartier was entrusted to convert an 18th century Chinese jade belt hook into a brooch. Ingeniously, Cartier removed the jade stud which would have traditionally been used to attach the hook to a leather belt, the hook was enhanced with enamel, diamonds and sapphires so illustrating the inventiveness of Cartier’s workshop in adapting Oriental jades into wearable jewels. But, not all jewels were so successful – a jade seal was incorporated into a pendant watch in 1924, it was altered in 1929 and was still unsold in stock as late as 1964. The most challenging creation in the Chinese oeuvre was the jade screen clock in which a jade table screen was hollowed out to conceal a mechanism to drive the clock hands, with the movement hidden away in the clock base, the completed clock still resembled its original shape and intention as a screen for a scholar’s desk but with the modern and convenient addition of a clock.

A jade screen clock made by Couet for Cartier, 1927. The frame of coral, onyx, diamonds and emeralds. The Chinese jade screen carved with a mountainous landscape probably dating to the 18th century.
Jade screens mounted on stands were traditionally used in China as ornaments for scholar’s desks | Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

Cartier’s love affair with the East continues into the 21st century. The dragon form of their popular Baiser Du Dragon jewels, launched in 2003, clearly looks to the diamond terminals for a rock crystal hoop brooch produced by Renault for Cartier, and bought the same year by Mrs R. Townsend, a prominent member of Washington society and the daughter of William L. Scott, a Pennsylvanian railroad and coal magnate, (see image above).

Ruby and diamond pendant, Le Baiser Du Dragon , Cartier