Here is a very good historical novel – although sometimes a bit hagiographic – called “La Panthère” by Stéphanie des Horts.
This novel traces the life of Jeanne Toussaint, the fearsome Artistic Director of Jewellery at Cartier, aptly nicknamed La Panthère.
Indeed, who knew that behind Cartier’s iconic bejeweled panther jewel, was a woman of flesh and blood?
We all owe Jeanne Toussaint Cartier’s iconic totem-animal. And we must give credit to Jeanne Toussaint for inspiring jewels that are a perfect reflection of who she was: modern, lively, animated both in movement and in color. We owe Jeanne Toussaint a revolution in terms of jewelry design and innovation.
Before being the awe-inspiring house that we know today, Cartier was on the threshold of the 20th century tremblings with a possible horizon. The Cartier House, built by three brothers, Jacques, Pierre and Louis, was found in three locations. Jacques in London in 1902, Pierre in New York in 1909, and the beating heart of the Cartier house inaugurated by Louis in Paris in 1899.
Before becoming the fearsome director of Cartier jewellery, Jeanne Toussaint lived many unhappy and unsettled lives. Born in 1887 in Belgium in a modest home, her childhood stability collapsed when her father fell ill and could no longer travel to sell lace produced by his wife. Confined, he went on to witness his wife hire a German man, with whom she would eventually permanently settle down, and run the business. This man not only took over the lace business, but also charmed Jeanne’s mother, who fell in love with him. And Jeanne and her older sister became subjects of abuse for several years, right under their father’s roof.
These experiences, and Jeanne’s single obsession propelled her towards horizons then unimagined, yet, horizon of all possibilities: Paris. An affair with a French count – Pierre de Quinsonas – saw her leaving Belgium for Paris at the age of 16. Influenced by her sister, who already settled there, she was introduced to the only possible profession for a young woman with no money or family: that of a courtesan.
Steeped in grace and intelligence, Jeanne sailed in troubled waters on the fringes of respectable society, hoping in vain for a marriage proposal from Pierre de Quinsonas, then from another Pierre, Pierre Hély d’Oissel. While her lovers may have been very enamored with her, their families were less inclined at the thought of their potential marriages.
Jeanne lived in the hopes of building her own life, her honor depending on the institution of marriage, dashed at each family council meeting. Paris of the 20s may have been roaring and a time that butted up against tradition, but marriage to a seamstress was still unacceptable. Jeanne was a seamstress indeed, who – in addition to weaving in and out of the underworld – embroidered elegant handbags that were all the rage in Paris.
Jeanne met Louis Cartier during the First World War and their romantic relationship bloomed slowly, but surely. Cartier, a divorced forty-something, quickly appreciated Jeanne’s strong and daring character. Coming from a wealthy background, Louis Cartier, as much desirous of the sight of Jeanne as of her lovely embroidered handbags, anticipated a rejection verdict from his own family council – a verdict mirroring those received by the Pierres from another time.
So, instead of a marriage proposal, Louis made a proposal to Jeanne that was ultimately much more daring than the institution of marriage: he offered her a job. With this, he granted her with an honor allowing her to only depend on herself. At the end of the First World War Jeanne was designated Director of Bags, Accessories and Objects department at Cartier.
They lived in perfect harmony, both personally and professionally, and their bond never waned, even when their romantic relationship ended. In 1933, she was appointed Director of Cartier jewelry by Louis, where she would go on to do wonders.
Her impeccable taste, her work ethic, her sense of innovation commanded incredible admiration. Total invisibility of settings was her obsession, in order to reveal the extravagance of the stones themselves. She dared to combine precious and semi-precious stones, a never before seen feat. She feasted on colors, movement, transformation. The jewels, while sublime and imposing, were also mobile, removable and transformable – and by the same token, modern.
Animals composed of stones came to life under her reign: ladybugs, dragonflies, snakes, flamingos, birds and crocodiles adorned the most beautiful women in the world. However, one animal escaped her – the panther, which Jeanne pursued for fifteen years, because she wanted it to be lively and multi-dimensional – in a word, alive. Jeanne the Panther was quickly assimilated with the panther-jewel, which forever became the animal totem and the emblem of Cartier.
A whole new clientele fell in love with the creations of Jeanne and from the jeweler of kings, Cartier became the king of jewelers.
In the meantime, Jeanne witnessed Louis Cartier, who could not marry her, marry in 1924 a Hungarian aristocrat and leave Paris to live in Budapest, leaving her alone to head the Parisian house.
She alone held the reins of the house during the Second World War, with Louis Cartier exiling to New York.
In 1941 she was arrested by the Germans for having adorned the eight windows of the Cartier boutique with a unique jewel: a bird with a low head, mute, in a cage. The Germans saw it as a metaphor for an occupied France and thus an outrage at the occupier. Jeanne escaped prison by explaining that the jewelry was made before the war for Yvonne Printemps, nicknamed “the Nightingale”. However, another piece of jewelry featuring a bird singing with its head held up high, out of its cage, decorated Cartier’s windows on the Liberation day. The acts of resistance can be surprising, rue de la Paix.
Louis Cartier died in New York in 1942, but the Cartier family did not think for a second to separate from Jeanne, who remained in charge of the jeweler Parisian shop until 1970.
She finally married in 1954 with Pierre Hély d’Oissel, after her romantic separation from Louis.
Was Jeanne a dream of benevolence, altruism and patience? From the tellings of Cartier’s alumni, I’m not certain. I am even rather sure that it may have been the opposite. Let’s not forget that her best friend was Gabrielle Chanel, who was certainly not known for her altruism or disinterest (tell me who your friends are and I will tell you…). I sense in Jeanne a fearsome woman, certainly tyrannical and with a much less linear life path than the novel by Stéphanie des Horts leads us to believe.
But also a resistant, fearless woman from a world that was shaken by two wars. Her audacity, her steadfast nature and her strength won over any opponent. Chiaroscuro, when you hold us.
For this photo shoot, no Cartier jewel – the house policy does not participate in this kind of exercise (yes, I asked of course – and my Cartier inheritance consists of a single watch… Panthère, which has an absolutely sentimental value, having messed up the rest). But a very 30s dress, in my opinion 😉
Vionnet dress – Eshiva bracelet – Prada heels – Louboutin purse
Hotel Lancaster – Paris