NEW YORK - "Cartier: 1900-1939" lays out on velvet a brilliantly cut Western version of "primitive art" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Out of darkest Paris they come, these sparkling tokens of tribal status: brooches, diadems, vanity cases, necklaces, bracelets and a single, exquisite lorgnette of diamonds, platinum and tortoise shell, perfect for peering down at the plebes.
Not only were the objects on view designed to feed the primitive desire to impress; they also engage the museumgoer's instinct to possess.
DTC The show is sponsored by Cartier to commemorate its 150th anniversary.
Organized by Judy Rudoe of the British Museum and J. Stewart Johnson, the Metropolitan's consulting curator of architecture and design, the show includes more than 200 pieces of jewelry, mostly drawn from Cartier's own collection.
Two examples are in the collection of the Metropolitan: a Daddy Warbucks-like diamond watchcase, once owned by Simon Guggenheim, and a poignant little Faberge-style egg that snaps open to reveal a photograph of Alexis, the doomed Romanov heir.
Though Cartier was founded in 1847 by Louis-Francois Cartier, it did not begin to design and produce its own pieces until 1900. Unlike Tiffany, Cartier made virtually nothing in the Art Nouveau style; perhaps the style was tainted by mass-market associations. Instead, Cartier specialized in miniature jeweled versions of classical architectural ornament: garlands, rosettes, urns.
One pictures the wearers of these early pieces as walking palaces, with chandeliers dangling from the earlobes and pilasters hanging from their shoulders.
Just before World War I, the Paris company tried to invade the Russian market, with Faberge-like objects - desk sets, eggs, animal figurines - in sickly pastel colors. There's a cute little sleeping pig in pink quartz that would be delightful to tuck into its own green leather box.
The Bolshevik revolution put a halt to Cartier's Russian adventure, but ultimately the firm benefited: Many of Faberge's former customers switched to Cartier.
A big chunk of the show is devoted to what one might call a jeweled history of colonialism: pieces inspired by the decorative arts of Egypt, India, China and Japan. Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, for instance, touched off an Egyptian rage, represented here by ornaments in blue faience and by a monumental clock of mother-of-pearl based on a temple gate from the Ptolemaic era.
A turban ornament for the maharajah of Kapurthala, represented in the show by a drawing, gives new meaning to the term rock star. It features 15 immense emeralds surrounding a hexagonal emerald of 177.48 carats, within a framework of diamonds and pearls.
One of the show's highlights is a pair of diamond and rock crystal bracelets that belonged to Gloria Swanson. Purchased by the screen siren in 1932, she wore them in the 1950 movie "Sunset Boulevard," in the role of Norma Desmond. The wall plaque says Swanson alternated between wearing one bracelet on each arm and stacking them on one wrist.
Another notable piece is a rare 1936 Hindu-style platinum collar set with faceted diamonds and carved rubies, sapphires and emeralds resembling leaves, flowers and jelly-bean-size melons. Though a 1963 remodeling has transformed this barbaric wreath into a genteel shadow - the catalog says the original design was "completely destroyed" - what remains still inspires longing.
Known by Cartier as a collier hindou, the necklace was made for Daisy Fellowes, a French-American heiress who died in 1962 at 71. Though a footnote today, for nearly 50 years Fellowes, the daughter of a French duke and granddaughter of the sewing-machine magnate Isaac Merritt Singer, was the trans-Atlantic set's No. 1 bad girl.
The Fellowes Hindu-style necklace is the most celebrated example of the "tutti-frutti" genre, colored-stone confections of emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds that were a throwback to Art Nouveau's preoccupation with natural forms: leaves, berries, branches, petals, all sprinkled with diamond dew.
And the gem of gems? A diamond brooch, made in 1935. The diamonds, featuring graduated baguettes, are set in a scroll shape, uncharacteristically asymmetrical for this house of perfect balance.
"Cartier: 1900-1939" remains at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, through Aug. 3. It will be on view at the British Museum in London from Oct. 3 to Feb. 1, 1998. The show is sponsored by Cartier.
Pub Date: 4/10/97