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Object of Desire: A Cartier Necklace

By Nancy Hass

Céline ClanetAt Cartier’s Paris workshop, the necklace’s yellow-gold armature — on which artisans spent over 500 hours alone — is readied to be set with stones, including more than 100 diamonds, following a hand-painted gouache-and-aquarelle sketch. The 15-plus-carat yellow sapphire that will be the piece’s central stone sits to the side in a black velvet box.

The making of a one-of-kind high jewellery piece often begins with a hunt for extraordinary stones. In the case of this recently completed elaborate collar by the Paris-based Cartier, that expedition began and ended at the annual gem show in Tucson, Ariz. While there are other such trade events throughout the world — Hong Kong, Basel, Switzerland, and Las Vegas also host prominent events — the Tucson show is the most idiosyncratic, with dealers bringing crystals, minerals and fossils in addition to precious and semiprecious stones. The six-person Cartier team spotted the more-than-15-carat octagonal yellow sapphire at a booth on the first day and a few hours later connected with a dealer who had a cache of brilliant blue lapis lazuli beads. Though purchases from a particular trip don’t always end up in the same piece, in this instance, the jewellers were struck by how the contrasting hues of pale orangy-yellow and intense cobalt might work together, echoing past Cartier collections that paired blue stones with gold.

Back in Paris, Jacqueline Karachi, the director of the Cartier high jewellery studio, and her 12-member staff conceptualised a collar that would evoke an exploding nebula. With the 29 lapis beads standing in for celestial bodies, the stars would be more than 100 small, brilliant-cut diamonds ranging in intensity from orange to yellow; the giant sapphire would occupy the centre, like a sun. The challenge: creating a framework to balance both the large beads and a delicate spray of smaller-cut gems. How to ensure that the piece would sit gracefully on the neck? 

A yellow gold armature, minutely articulated with invisible hinges to enable movement, was handcrafted to connect the lapis to the triangular web of multitone diamonds, which seem randomly arrayed, like stars, though in reality their arrangement is perfectly precise. It was engineered so that while the beads would touch the skin, the gem-studded mesh between them would be suspended a few millimetres above it. The frame was then pressed into a plasterlike material to hold the collar still while the setter placed the gems one by one. Such exacting work is always done by a jeweller, setter and polisher in Cartier’s Paris workshop, who each follow the piece from start to finish, a process that for this necklace took more than 1,000 hours. That may be a mere blip in the cosmic course of things, but compared to the rushed industrial process through which most mall-bought jewellery is produced, it represents a very Big Bang indeed. 

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