Susannah Lovis

The era of ‘Big Cat’ jewellery

Designers obsession with the King of animals

Jeanne Toussaint - “La Panthère”

Jewellery designer Jeanne Toussaint (1887-1967) was obsessed with all things feline. She famously always wore a floor length panther coat, and her ferocious temperament earned her the nickname “La Panthère” from her boss and lover, Louis Cartier.

Toussaint joined Cartier in 1913, and it was not long before her big cat passion extended into her designs. In 1917 Louis Cartier gave her an onyx vanity case, decorated with a diamond and onyx panther in honour of her love for big cats. Louis Cartier also took her on safari trips, and she was often seen visiting Paris zoo. When Italian heiress Marchesa Casati attended a Venetian ball with a pet cheetah on a lead, Toussaint decided she wanted to make her own big cat statement.

In 1927 jewellery designer Peter Lemarchand joined her team. He was hired to bring Toussaint’s three-dimensional panther designs to life. Toussaint’s glamorous friends included Cecil Beaton, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. She was introduced to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1936 and the Duke later made a commission for the first three-dimensional Cartier Panthère using a 116.74 carat emerald which came from the Duke’s own personal collection. The final piece was a brooch made in 1948 and was a cat made of gold and onyx perched above the emerald. The following year the Windsors commissioned a second piece – another brooch with a diamond cat and a sapphire.

Cartier diamond set panthere ring
Carrera y Carrera earrings

The rise of feline designs

The panther theme was also used as a popular Art Deco motif, as well as featuring in mid-century, eighties and contemporary jewellery designs. While Cartier took on the big cats first, many other jewellery houses have also taken on their own interpretations of the cat design.

Spanish jewellery house Carrera y Carrera has been using animal and nature themed designs as the basis of many of its pieces for more than 130 years. Carrera y Carrera’s ‘Bestiario’ collection, which was originally famous in the eighties, features many cat pieces including tigers and panthers which are regarded as highly collectable vintage items today.

Celebrity fans of ‘Big Cat’ jewellery

Celebrities including Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga are all fans of panther themed jewellery, often sporting Carrera y Carrera pieces or Cartier at red carpet events and in video shoots.

French socialite Daisy Fellowes (1890-1962) also had a custom made sapphire and diamond Panthère brooch made in 1950 by Cartier. It was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 2008 as part of her wider jewellery collection and sold for around £435,000, demonstrating the value of these highly collectable vintage items.

Other celebrity fans of the panther style included British model Nina Aga Khan (1930-1965). Khan, who married two of the richest men of her time, also had two pet black panthers that were a gift from her lover Baron von Thyssen. She took almost everywhere with her. Khan had a pink and blue sapphire panther cocktail ring, which was embodied in white diamonds with blue sapphire spots and green emerald eyes. Her pieces went under the hammer in 1969 during auction house Christie’s first ever jewellery auction in Geneva, Switzerland.

Iconic jewellery collector Barbara Hutton (1912-1979) was also a lover of the great cat jewels by Cartier. In her collection she had a brooch which was made for her in 1957, a pair of earrings, made in 1961, and a bracelet designed as tigers in diamonds and carved onyx with yellow diamond stripes which was commissioned in 1962.

Tiger drop earrings
Siberian tiger bangle with emerald eyes

The lure of vintage Cat jewels

Now celebrated as fine vintage items, original big cat jewellery is regarded as highly valuable and collectable.

Discontinued items such as Cartier de Panthère diamond rings are highly sought-after rare items. The pieces are usually made with a base material of 18-carat white gold and are accentuated with brilliant cut diamonds and often garnet eyes.

During the 1960s many items similar to Cartier designs emerged, including popular double headed golden leopard bangles. These vintage pieces would also use the base material of 18ct gold alongside onyx and emeralds for other feline features.

Famous cat collectables

The most famous vintage pieces from the original big cat collection went on to sell for prestigious sums at auction.

The Duchess of Windsor’s original sapphire clip brooch was sold at a Sotheby’s sale in Switzerland of her personal collection in 1987 for £795,000. The proceeds of the auction went to the Institut Louis Pasteur for Aids Research in Paris.

The Duchess’s famous diamond panther on the sapphire globe from 1949 was bought by the Cartier museum for £633,700. The piece was displayed as part of a collection at the Cartier Exhibition at the Grand Palais Paris from December 2013 to February 2014.

A Syrian millionaire bought her panther bracelet in 1987 for £860,000. The same piece was later auction in London by Sotheby’s in 2010 and sold for £4.5m – the highest price at auction ever paid for a Cartier bracelet.

Cartier celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014 and bought out a new ‘Panthère de Cartier’ collection comprising 56 pieces in September of that year to celebrate its most famous design. The collection was a fusion of past and present designs, with bold rings, bracelets and necklaces in traditional gem stone settings with Cartier’s famous striking geometric panther shapes showcasing the timeless allure of the big cats.

Tiger Bangle with Ruby eyes
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