A sneak peek at the Denver Art Museum's Brilliant

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Sunday, the Denver Art Museum will debut its newest blockbuster, Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century. This unique exhibition of Cartier jewelry made between 1900 and 1975 features 250 pieces gleaned from the company’s own collection as well as private lenders.

I was able to attend the media preview, and here’s a peek at what’s to come. Find a full write-up on Brilliant in next week’s Indy.

Many of the pieces have rarely been on display, including a large selection of smoking accessories from the early part of the century. Cartier, as the show illustrates, was a company with a competitive edge toward trend-setting design, while also informed by the “spirit of the times.” For instance, as smoking became more widely accepted, accessories like lighters, ashtrays, cigarette cases and the like emerged as popular gifts.

But cigar cutters and men’s wristwatches (a Louis Cartier invention) aren’t exactly showstoppers, nor is it the “precious objects” — “mystery clocks,” portable vanity cases (for makeup), desk sets and the like — encrusted in the finest sparklers though they are. Really, your jaw drops at the jewelry, for the wealthy, royalty, and celebrities. Witness early on Marie of Romania's 478-carat sapphire pendant, and a 1928 bib of jewels once owned by the Maharajas of Patiala. That’s the stunner below.

Yet all the ice does in fact grow a little cold (I couldn’t help myself). The history of the wearers helps, but Brilliant is most humanized by a lovely section devoted to the workshop, with stations devoted to each position in the making of a custom piece: designer, stone cutter, polisher, among others. The DAM assembled a jeweler’s desk and the tools of each team member’s trade, showing the humble, yet intricate process of creating the works. For polishing alone, only wild goose quills were used, along with strands of fine cotton to buff the in-between parts. Carefully, always carefully. Put this way in the show text:

"You're pushing but you've got to control the pressure, it's an iron hand in a velvet glove. You have to concentrate and not be stressed." Hervé L, stone setter at Cartier 28 years.

Necklace created for Sir Bhupindra Singh, Maharaja of Patiala. - EDIE ADELSTEIN
  • Edie Adelstein
  • Necklace created for Sir Bhupindra Singh, Maharaja of Patiala.
Detail of the necklace above. - EDIE ADELSTEIN
  • Edie Adelstein
  • Detail of the necklace above.
Dolphin bangle from 1969 with gold, emeralds and 1,028 diamonds. - EDIE ADELSTEIN
  • Edie Adelstein
  • Dolphin bangle from 1969 with gold, emeralds and 1,028 diamonds.
The jeweler's workspace. Note the flap to catch falling pieces. - EDIE ADELSTEIN
  • Edie Adelstein
  • The jeweler's workspace. Note the flap to catch falling pieces.

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