The Panther: Jeanne Toussaint

The Woman Behind Cartier's Seminal Collection

One of Cartier’s most enduring symbols is the lithe and elegant panther. The motif first appeared in 1914 on a wristwatch whose face, decorated in onyx and diamond, depicted the unmistakable spotted coat of the jungle cat. This theme was built upon substantially after the appointment of the inimitable Jeanne Toussaint in 1918. A contemporary of Coco Chanel, Toussaint had a similarly flamboyant yet modern style—combining turbans and long pearls with an evening uniform of silk pyjamas or a Chinese suit—that had her lauded by the artistic circles of Paris. Initially heading up the accessories department Toussaint was promoted to director of jewelry in 1933 and her sleek chic and free yet forceful spirit (as well as the skins that were strewn around her apartment) prompted her nickname ‘The Panther’. During the war in 1940, with characteristically indomitable force, Toussaint persuaded her colleague Peter Lemarchand to create a brooch featuring a caged red, white and blue bird that was displayed in the Cartier windows on Rue de la Paix. For this bold move the jeweler was summoned to the headquarters of the German Army in France—although five years later the brooch reappeared with the cage open and the bird in song. In 1948 the panther motif went 3-D when The Duchess of Windsor commissioned a golden cat perched on top of a cabochon emerald. This cemented the trend, also indulged by luminaries such as heiress Barbara Hutton and princess Nina Aga Khan, whose husband ordered a whole collection of pieces featuring the animal. The French government paid tribute to Toussaint’s influence on jewelry and modern design by awarding her the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1955.

La panthère : Le fabuleux roman de Jeanne Toussaint, joaillière des rois by Stéphanie Des Horts was published this year by Jean-Claude Lattès.

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