Watches & Jewellery

In Search Of Beauty: Cartier, Crystallization Of Time

Cartier mounts a spectacular exhibition in Tokyo and affirms its unparalleled status as a purveyor of design, artistry, craftsmanship and innovation
Reading time 15 minutes

There is a serene side of Tokyo that exists in stark contrast to the frenetic pace of its bustling districts. Minutes away from the lively heart of downtown Roppongi, and tucked in a tree-lined oasis of calm of what used to be old University of Tokyo campus grounds is The National Art Center—making an eye-catching appearance with its futuristic and undulating façade of glass and steel.

Having kick-started with an October 2nd opening day, Cartier, Crystallization of Time is currently on show at this architectural monolith, regarded as one of Japan’s foremost art establishments. The showcase is the latest in an illustrious timeline of 34 Cartier exhibitions held in world-renowned art museums, including three in Japan, since 1989. It is, without doubt, a groundbreaking one for Cartier—for the first time ever, the French luxury maison has turned the spotlight on its contemporary creations from the 1970s onwards, alongside select historical pieces to allow freedom of movement between the different eras of the exhibits, for comparing and contrasting.

In essence, the exhibition explores Cartier’s richly innovative design world through three broad chapters: Material Transformation and Colours; Forms and Designs; and Universal Curiosity, viewed from a core concept of “time”. Why “crystallization of time” and what does it mean? We are reminded that precious stones, an essential component of Cartier jewellery creations, are, in fact, time in crystallized form, forged inside the earth over the course of millions or even billions of years. The beauty in these crystallized stones were discovered by humans, and so acquired value.

“I immediately like the title Cartier, Crystallization of Time. This very intriguing title for an exhibition about contemporary jewellery expresses precisely a different purpose, a deeper and less common relation to “time” than we are ordinarily accustomed to,” said Cartier International President and CEO Cyrille Vigneron.

Cartier, Crystallization of Timeime

Working in collaboration with Cartier to design and create the structure of the exhibition scenography is New Material Research Laboratory (NMRL), an architectural firm founded by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Tomoyuki Sakakida in 2008. It was eye-opening to see how NMRL sublimated the natural beauty of stones and wood—yaku and jindai sugi (Japanese ceder wood), jindai keyaki (Japanese zelkova), date kanmuri ishi (date kanmuri stone)—coupled with kobishoku (antique brass finish), optical glass and other materials into forms and configurations to bring the enthralling beauty of the exhibition catalogue of over 300 Cartier creations to a new light and life. A fusion of traditional artistry and cutting-edge technologies—the understated yet stunning contemporary gallery spaces encouraged refreshingly new ways of experiencing these precious works of art-cum-treasure trove of gems whose glimmer was the only illumination (aside from the spotlights directed at them) in a space permeated with dark tranquility.

“For this Cartier exhibition, while making abundant use of wood and stone, we have worked to make time the overarching theme for the overall design of each room and for every single expressive detail,” Sakakida revealed.

Half of the exhibits, rarely seen and hidden from the public eye, are privately-owned pieces selected from around the world. Along with these are curated pieces from the Cartier Collection—established by the Maison in 1983 to accumulate jewellery, timepieces and other precious objects as a testament of its creative history and artistic evolution that now comprises an archive of more than 3,000 pieces from the 1860s to the 2000s. 

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Backward Clock, Hiroshi Sugimoto, 2018, © Hiroshi Sugimoto/Courtesy of N.M.R.L.

Therefore, it was only natural for the anticipation to run high at the media-exclusive preview of Cartier, Crystallization of Time with a walkthrough courtesy of Image, Style and Heritage Director of Cartier International, Pierre Rainero, a day before the visual feast opened its doors to the public.

The divergence between the National Art Center’s light-filled, cavernous atrium and the exhibition’s darkened, atmospheric space made for a dramatic start at the entrance to the exhibition where a restored antique clock from 1908 altered to turn counterclockwise stood as a lone installation.

“The installation at the entrance to the exhibition neatly epitomises the exhibition theme: a huge clock more than 100 years old ticks away, telling the time backwards. And so do we press on, advancing back toward the origin of matter itself,” Sugimoto said.

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Prologue: Space of Time, © N.M.R.L./ Hiroshi Sugimoto + Tomoyuki Sakakida

With the impartation of the concept of time at the opening tableau, the exhibition segues into the Prologue: Space Of Time section. The circular space is shrouded in dimness except for twelve pillars of light funnelled through double-weave futsuori (woven fabric) display cases that enclose a capsule of mystery clocks and prism clocks whose compelling allure stems their optical illusion effects.

Evolving over decades into different colours and shapes, the mystery clock—first invented by Cartier in 1912 with hands that appear to float in the dial as if they were disconnected from any mechanism—is seen as a work of art infused with Cartier’s artistry, creativity and technical skill in marking the passage of time, the very essence of the exhibition. Among all the notable ones exhibited here were a pair of prism clocks from the Monagesque royal family from 1955 and 2016, and the Portique mystery clock from 1923.


The exhibition proper is encapsulated in three chapters: Material Transformations and Colours; Forms and Designs; and Universal Curiosity, representing the heart of Cartier’s creative vision. To set up the scene for the first chapter, NMRL divides the space vertically with sha (a type of Japanese gauze) canopy, under which lies an arrangement of hinoki cypress exhibition cases displaying Cartier’s bejewelled creations. Exploring Cartier designs from the vantage point of materials and colours, this chapter’s narrative is divided into Metal Techniques; Stone Techniques; Artisanal Skills and Decorative Techniques; and the Cartier Colour Palette.

Here, we learn that, remarkably, Cartier was the first jeweller to use platinum in high jewellery to highlight the beauty of diamonds. The durable metal allowed stones to be set in narrow mountings on a “clean-looking” base, giving birth to the neoclassical Garland style at the beginning of the 20th century. “The idea to make jewellery play with light is very important at Cartier. The way the mounting and design is conceived, everything is in favour of the stones—the centre of attraction for jewellery at Cartier,” said Rainero.

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Chapter 1: Material Transformation and Colors, © N.M.R.L./ Hiroshi Sugimoto + Tomoyuki Sakakida

Other metal-related innovations include using blackened steel as a colour and textural component in tiaras back in 1914, before pairing steel and gold in the 1980s with the Santos watch; linking three colours of gold for the iconic Trinity and double C pieces; and a range of techniques such as granulation and filigree used for manipulating gold. With respect to stone techniques, glyptics (hardstone carving including fossilised wood), engraving and stringing are the highlights. Currently, Cartier is the only jeweller to have a glyptician at his own studio integrated at the maison since around 2010.

Without the exceptional skills of jewellers, watchmakers, stone- setters, stone-cutters and polishers that have been passed down through the generations, the beauty of precious stones can never be fully realised. Decorative techniques such as enamelling, guilloche, plique-à-jour, grisaille enamel, and marquetry of mother-of-pearl, kingfisher feathers, hardstones, straw and flower petals are those that make up the artisanal craftsmanship perfected at the ateliers of Cartier over the course of its history.

Wrapping up this chapter is a review of the Cartier colour palette—signature combinations of hues that must be retained by the maison’s jewellery creations. The perpetual curiosity of Louis Cartier led to the infusion of diverse influences such as Islamic art, Indian inspirations, Ballets Russes, architecture and ceramics in the maison’s body of work, including these captivating colour juxtapositions: blue and green; black and green; red and black; red, green and black; tutti-frutti; blue and purple; and pastels.

In the 1990s, Cartier’s chromatic chart evolved from a play of strong contrasts to include subtle nuances of the same colour. A spectrum of stones have been used to realise bejewelled creations for eminent clients such as Daisy Fellowes, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and members of royal families from around the world. They range from emerald, sapphire, ruby, black opal, coral (only a certain coral referred in-house as the Louis Cartier colour is used) to chrysoprase, tourmaline, onyx, opal and turquoise, amethyst, tanzanite, spinel, garnet.


To evoke Forms and Designs, the second chapter of the exhibition, NMRL’s configuration of a cave-like setting—a series of irregular, boxy structures layered with rustic and porous tuff, a hardened volcanic ejecta—is chosen to set off the density and purity of the rare precious stones. We delve further into Cartier’s pioneering design vision here in relation to the substance of lines, shapes and structures, tagged to these principles: Essential Lines, Spheres, New Architecture, Optics (Visual Effects), Harmony in Chaos and Beauty All Around.

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Chapter 2: Forms and Designs, © N.M.R.L./ Hiroshi Sugimoto + Tomoyuki Sakakida

In the quest to discover the essence through design, Cartier’s creative philosophy has become synonymous with the purity of line. By combining different stones, cuts and proportions, a sense of rhythm and abstraction began to emerge. Using these design principles, Cartier started to reinterpret natural elements, such as the flow of water or the swirl of smoke. Coupled with Louis Cartier’s fascination with simple, straight lines and functional geometric shapes that expressed rhythm, harmony, symmetry, clarity, order and flexibility—that was in line with the well-balanced Louis XVI style from the 18th century—Cartier rose to become a trailblazer and proponent of the Art Deco movement.

“The Art Deco style officially started in 1925 at the Paris World Exhibition. In fact, twenty years before that, Cartier had already explored the world of geometry and abstraction in a very pure sense of lines and shapes,” said Rainero.

In watchmaking, the evolution of shapes and the harmony of form and volume contributed much to the mainstay of Cartier’s iconic timepiece designs and repertoire of the Tank, Santos- Dumont, Tonneau, Tortue, Baignoire, Ellipse, Ballon Bleu de Cartier and Drive de Cartier.

In conjunction with the maison’s eye on forms and designs are spheres and beads that serve to amplify volume in designs through an emphasis of the jewels’ architectural dimension and the power of evocation. Hailing from the 1920s and 1930s, and also the contemporary era, these spherical elements seen in Cartier creations are crafted from hardstones, gold and other materials and expressed in a myriad of colours.

Following a growing fascination with forms, volume and three- dimensionality, Cartier next turned to geometric and organic architecture of the 20th century, propelling Cartier’s creativity to the next level. These new inspirations informed by innovative geometry and organic shapes are best illustrated on rings and brooches due to the freedom of creation they possess in being a canvas for these architectural elements of design.

Brilliantly echoing the constructs of architectural geometry is a spectacular necklace of Burmese rubies from 1937, a special order from an Indian maharajah; it then changed ownership to the Guinness family and belongs now to the Al Thani Collection. An example of how nature-inspired organic architecture was appropriated by Cartier can be seen in a pair of bracelets boasting interesting volume that was sold to Gloria Swanson in 1930.

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Chapter 2: Forms and Designs “Necklace” © N.M.R.L./ Hiroshi Sugimoto + Tomoyuki Sakakida

From there, Cartier moved on to explore the notion of movement, rhythm and resonance in its creations. It imbued them with a sense of speed via geometric forms, graphic patterns and mirror-like structures to generate optical or illusory effects in the spirit of kinetic art. The injection of more volume and curves in the idea of movement is evident from the second part of the 20th century or in the last 30 years of Cartier’s creative repertoire, according to Rainero.

Harmony in Chaos is the next point of focus in Cartier’s design oeuvre covered by Forms and Designs. The discovery of beauty by happenstance or accident illustrates the jeweller’s open and constantly curious inclinations, proving it was ahead of its time. Epitomising the beauty of the accident is the Crash wristwatch released in 1967 with a case looking as if it had been run over by a vehicle. Besides this accidental form of design, creations also embody accidents of nature such as inclusions found in gemstones and other irregularities; as well as accidents by design or designed chaos created from arrangements using disparate cuts of stones, interplay of shapes and proportions, and dissymmetry in the transformation of disorder into beauty.

The last discourse of Chapter 2, Beauty All Around, sees Cartier being inspired by objects found in the most unexpected places—from nails, screws, gas pipes and other industrial items to the shape of a TV screen; as well as, buttons, corset buckles, the drapes of fabric and other motifs from the world of couture. The Love collection from 1969, together with Juste un Clou and Écrou de Cartier are among the maison’s most iconic and popular which reference this design inspiration from the everyday world around us.

To connect the Space of Time to the different chapters of the exhibition are entrances and exits leading into and out of them to the prologue section. Also, for each chapter, NMRL created an intermediary space where Sugimoto handpicked Cartier creations, calling them “treasure pieces” to be displayed with special Japanese antiques from the architect’s personal collection—an exclusive at Cartier, Crystallization of Time.

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Panthère: A Timeless SymbolNew Material Research Laboratory © N.M.R.L./ Hiroshi Sugimoto + Tomoyuki Sakakida

In transitioning to the finale, the exhibition pays homage to Cartier’s quintessential icon in a special area named Panthère: A Timeless Symbol. The feline, exemplifying women’s liberation, carries great symbolism in the design annals of Cartier. It has been referenced endlessly, by way of abstraction or figuration in 2D and 3D with wide a range of materials.

The penultimate section, Cartier Archives, reveals Louis Cartier’s collection of materials including a book about artistic Japan from 1889 that helped build his worldview. Together with sketches and drawings by the maison’s team of designers over the years, the resource-rich segment documents the connection between the past and future of Cartier’s creations.


Finally, in conceiving the backdrop of the closing chapter entitled Universal Curiosity, NMRL’s single oval case measuring 16 m in length and resembling the orbit of a comet floating in space is strikingly unique. The scenography evokes being surrounded by the infinite universe while viewing the diminutive jewels displayed in individual compartments running all around the elliptical-shaped display case. In a way, the set-up serves to unify the wide diversity of Cartier creations inspired by the cultures and civilisations of the world—Japan, China, India, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and many others—and the flora and fauna found in these different places. Chapter 3 perfectly concludes the sublime story of Cartier viewed through its “beyond borders” lens that traverses and transcends culture, nature, art, design and space in an incredible journey marked by “time”.

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Chapter 3: Universal Curiosity, © N.M.R.L./ Hiroshi Sugimoto + Tomoyuki Sakakida

An immersive experience, both visually and viscerally, Cartier, Crystallization of Time leads one on a discovery of Cartier’s evolution of creativity in the context of its enduring guiding principles from its foundations. It was revelatory and impressive to see the myriad of connections among many pieces from the past and present—decades or even a century apart in their creation—bearing continuity in style that is classically Cartier in design while also being resonant of contemporary times. As Rainero expressed succinctly, “The dual capacity of a Cartier creation to crystallize time by establishing an aesthetic that defies it while also embracing and expressing the tastes and lifestyles of a given period, extracting its essence, leaves us no doubt as to the appropriateness of the title.”

Visit Cartier, Crystallization Of Time, running from October 2 – December 16, 2019, at The National Art Center, Tokyo

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