And so to Paris, for the first time in two years, to attend the opening of the Cartier exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
There was a time when I would be back and forth to the City of Light every few weeks. While I never became blasé about my visits, I did not quite realize how much I had missed them until I recently sauntered off the Eurostar and out into the autumn sunlight.
The environs of the Gare du Nord seemed like a paradigm of Gallic poise and sophistication, which, given that I had once needed to step over a slumbering couple—one clutching a crack pipe, the other a half-bottle of liquor—because I was fearful of rousing them from their alfresco nap, shows how fond my heart had grown of the French capital during my coronavirus-enforced absence.
If even the pickpockets, vagrants, and ne’er-do-wells who congregate around railway stations seemed picturesque, the exhibition itself brought on a full-blown attack of stendhalisme.
The opening night was about as French as was humanly possible, stuffed with comediennes (notably Amira Casar and Monica Bellucci); members of le gratin (think Michel and Hélène David-Weill); luxury-goods royalty (Pierre-Alexis Dumas of Hermès, who is the president of the museum); and a celebrated chef who did clever things with lobster. Only Emmanuel Macron was conspicuous by his absence, but given that Catherine Deneuve, the closest thing that France has to a queen, was in attendance, I think we got the better end of the deal.
The show told the story of Louis Cartier’s fascination with Islamic art and the role it played in shaping the aesthetics of Cartier. (I am an unashamed and unabashed super-fan of old Cartier, so had they just tipped a big bucket of trinkets onto the floor, I would have been happy rummaging through them.) The richness of the objects and jewels on display was complemented by material that set these works of art—and they are works of art—in their cultural context.
It showed how the culture of the Middle East had influenced everything from the introduction of such items as aigrettes to the use of abstract decorative motifs, to the vibrant visual language of the legendary Tutti Frutti jewelry.
If I have one tiny criticism, it is that there were not enough timepieces: sure, there were some fabulous clocks, any of which would find a loving home chez moi. But the wristwatch appears to have escaped the curator’s eye, which is a pity, as Cartier watches are currently experiencing the mother of all comebacks.
The rectilinear Cartier Tank is one of the best-known watches in the world, one of a handful of watch designs that make themselves known in an instant even across a crowded room, and a timepiece that has found favor on wrists as diverse as those of Muhammad Ali and Jacqueline Kennedy.
But Cartier is about much more than the Tank. The French jeweler is the cynosure of the shaped (as opposed to round) watch: tonneau, tortue, cloche, parallelogram, octagon, decagon. If you can imagine a shape, the chances are that Cartier has at some time or another made it into a watch.
Until the late 1990s, Cartier watches were sought after at auction, more for their beauty than their mechanics. But for most of this century, collectors have overlooked Cartier in pursuit of complicated mechanical watches which at their most extreme have resembled mechanical hamburgers, or leftover props from the William Shatner–era Star Trek.
Cartier was itself partially to blame, inasmuch as it tried to board the complicated-watchmaking bandwagon. However, five years ago, a new C.E.O., Cyrille Vigneron, set about re-introducing classic models.
First, it was the greed-is-good era Santos (yes, Michael Douglas did wear one in Wall Street), then came the Panthère, and next the Pasha. Emboldened by success, the company launched even more recondite models—the Tonneau (a favorite of Stravinsky’s), the Tank Cintrée, the Tank Asymétrique, and the Cloche.
Surging affection for these reissued classics lit a fire under the market for vintage Cartier, exploding into a firestorm in May of this year, when a little-known model called the Pebble, made by Cartier’s London workshops in the early 1970s, sold at the Phillips auction house for about $435,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $54,000 to $109,000.
If I tell you that the last time I saw one of these at auction—which was some years ago—it went for $40,000, you get an idea of the explosion in prices.
The surge continued into the fall, when an interesting, if slightly uneven, collection of 88 Cartier watches crossed the block at an auction in Monaco, raising an impressive $3,705,707, with one watch, a white-gold Maxi Oval from Cartier London, fetching $413,000.
Now the action has moved to its winter season, with sales in Geneva, Hong Kong, and New York. More star Cartier lots are cropping up.
Earlier this month, Sotheby’s offered a 1970 London Crash—the most sought-after of Cartier trophy timepieces, worn by the likes of Jay-Z—at what now seems like a conservative $219,000 to $328,800, a valuation that would have seemed punchy just a year ago. Indeed, the watch sold for a record $870,273.
It will be fascinating to see how high Cartier can soar now that it has fully awoken from its slumber.
Nicholas Foulkes, the author of more than 20 books on the arts and history, is a London-based writer and editor