written by Diana Jarrett
Jewelers live in that uncertain world in which depending on the day . . . anything goes. While many customers come in for items available from a display case—or that can be easily ordered, most jewelers testify to how vital the custom-made jewelry niche is to their revenue stream.
Whether it’s reimagining an old heirloom that has lost its utility or allure, or simply pieces that have gone out of vogue, consumers bring in their unloved and worn-out items, relying on a bench jeweler to work miracles by breathing new life into their tired stuff. Most of the time a customer’s request is completely doable. But who hasn’t said “yes, of course, we can do that” to an expectant shopper while secretly wondering how on earth you’re going to pull that one off?
The most challenging assignments are the abstract ideas which are firmly fixed in the imagination of a client. The jeweler listens to their vision and must interpret exactly what that customer was envisioning. Bit tricky isn’t it? The abstract to the concrete is not always the straightest path.
To soothe your angst over how difficult custom jobs can be, we’ll take a peek at one of modern jewelry history’s most colorful custom-made jewelry requests—at a place called Cartier in Paris.
Enter Mexican femme fatale Maria Felix who had achieved goddess-like status in her home country. She was a larger-than-life Latin film legend who reached the pinnacle of her fame between the 1940s through the 1960s. She refused to learn English fearing she could risk being type-cast in American films. She did learn to speak French, however. Eventually, Felix made films in Spain, Italy, France and Argentina besides her native Mexico.
Wherever she went in Latin America or throughout Europe, Felix created a vortex of adoration whirling around her, much the same way Elizabeth Taylor (another great jewelry collector) did wherever she went.
Felix’ grand passion was to commission bold custom-made jewelry. Her tastes ran towards the exotic; serpents were a popular theme with her, and Cartier was happy to oblige these whims.
So, the story goes that in 1975, she commissioned her most outlandish reptile jewel yet, a double crocodile necklace. Two life-like if petite crocodiles would encircle her neck and clasp jaws in front, forming a startlingly realistic neckpiece like no one would ever own. The now legendary history of its custom design is that La Doña as she was called, breezed into the house of Cartier carrying a live baby crocodile for the designers to use as a model for the design. Her goal was to have the designers study the little beast so well that they would be able to recreate this magnum opus with extraordinary accuracy. It worked. The super realistic and articulated little crocs were interpreted in yellow and white gold with precious gemstones.
But true to artistic zeal, Cartier applied creative license in the gemstone coloration of the little reptiles. One of the darling crocs was awash with 1,023 brilliant-cut fancy intense yellow diamonds weighing 60.02 carats. Lively emerald cabochons were used for its eyes. The other croc was bedazzled with 1,060 emeralds totaling 66.86-carats, using fiery red ruby cabochons for its eyes.
To enhance their realism even more, the crocodiles were fully articulated with interior frameworks. Some records indicate the crocs can be separated and worn individually as brooches. These remarkably life-like creatures became part of her signature style for decades. Was there a reason for its commission some wonder? We’ll never know more than that they were part of her fixation on reptile jewelry in general. She wore custom-made serpent arm bands, serpent ear hoops and the like for years. It’s been reported that when the iconic crocodile jewel was finished, Felix was so ecstatic with the results she gave a champagne toast to all the craftsmen at Cartier who worked on her project.
Felix lived to be 87 years old, passing on in 2002. But quietly, not long before her death, she sold some of her prominent reptile baubles including this crocodile necklace. The Cartier Collection eventually came into possession of this significant piece where today it resides with Cartier’s important jewelry collection. Just a year before she died, the director of the Cartier Collection couriered the necklace to Mexico so Felix could wear it in a documentary about her life.
The custom-made piece and its colorful back story are considered to be one of the most important historical works ever produced by the house of Cartier —and certainly its most eccentric method of design inspiration. ▼