The inspiration for the Panthère collection was Jeanne Toussaint. Toussaint was the artistic director at Cartier for a long period, and also a friend and muse of Louis Cartier, her nickname being ‘La Panthère’.
Animal skins were a huge part of the fashion world at the turn of the century, and the panther appeared for Cartier at the beginning of the first World War. The panther, as well as other animals and prints, had become a theme throughout art and design at this time. Animal skins were used extensively, notably by interior designer Elsie De Wolfe, who designed the Colony Club, New York's premier social club for women. Its filter into jewellery and the symbolism of the panther made its way by the innovative and groundbreaking designer Jeanne Toussaint. Legend has it that it was while Toussaint was in Africa and saw a panther, she proclaimed ‘Onyx diamonds, emeralds – a brooch’ and so the panther, now so connected with Cartier, was born.
The first full cat appeared on the top of a vanity case, in onyx, in 1917, (although the panther shape was first placed on a watch in 1914) and continued from there. Toussaint's irreverence and forward-thinking design meant that the panther, as well as other animals, featured heavily for Cartier, and her move away from art deco designs in the 1930’s kept Cartier pieces in the front of the pack. She had designed several panther pieces for herself and knew that once unleashed to the world the panther would grab their hearts as much as hers on that day in Africa.
Cartier also used the panther in one of their promotional postcards. The French illustrator George Barbier, in 1914, was commissioned to draw an exhibition card, and used the piece called ‘Lady with Panther’. It shows a woman, wearing a Poirot gown, between two columns and with a panther lying by her feet. This, with Toussaint's design, cemented the panther and Cartier together, right up to today. The panther has continued to change and be used in many different ways, from its full form or in part.
Causing a stir when first appearing, the Panther, even though we are used to seeing it adorned with stones and sitting atop jewellery boxes or as earrings, still symbolises beauty, grace and power. This can be seen by the strong-willed women that wear the Panthère Brooch, including the Duchess of Windsor and the Duchess of the Aga Khan.
Another piece, made for the Duchess of Windsor in 1952 is the Diamond and Onyx panther bracelet. This was sold, within a collection of her jewellery at Sotheby's, for just over £4.5 million. Sotheby's described it as having an "articulated body designed to encircle the wrist and to assume a stalking attitude, pave-set with brilliant and single-cut diamonds and calibre-cut onyx, the eyes each set with a marquise-shaped emerald". Part of the collection, which was a collaboration between the Windsors and Toussaint from Cartier, came with inscriptions declaring their love for each other and with the letters W E. This also, incidentally, is the title of a film based on abdication directed by Madonna, who was enamoured with the jewellery of the auction, and especially with this bracelet.
The Panthère Collection totalled many pieces when it reached its 100th anniversary, a huge milestone in any fashion line and the largest in the house's collection. It continues to this day to be worn by names such as Miranda Kerr, Lady Gaga and Cara Delevingne, showing that the style of the panther has not waned throughout its long history.
They are also a great investment, especially in the pre-owned market. The pieces stand out in any setting and on any occasion, and the classic, stylish fashion will never seem out of place. From the first image of the Panther at Cartier, which was a postcard by Barbier, used to promote an exhibition, it has stayed an instantly recognisable, iconic and striking image.