It’s hard to think of a style icon of the 20th century who attracted the same kind of attention as Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee whose charms prompted a British king to relinquish his throne in order for them to marry. Unsurprisingly her exacting eye picked out some phenomenally opulent pieces of jewellery and she was known for her admiration of la panthère de Cartier – the Cartier panther, a symbol seen on a number of items made by the Parisian jewellery company.
While others – including Elizabeth Taylor – have fallen for the charms of the Cartier panther, it’s perhaps Simpson who will be remembered as its biggest champion. She first purchased a three- dimensional version of the cat which sat atop a brooch in 1948 and she went on to commission a second piece the following year featuring a platinum cat on a cabochon sapphire. Her trinity of feline favourites was completed when she invested in a climbing onyx and diamond panther brooch. This brooch once again hit the spotlight in 2010 when it was auctioned, along with other pieces from Simpson’s jewellery collection, for €5.5m, amid rumours that Madonna was a possible buyer.
Representing, to many, fearsomeness, sensuality and exoticism, the panther appeared on early 20th-century powder boxes, cigarette holders and vanity cases, and later was used on handbags. It can also be seen dancing across watches, draped elegantly from earrings and its head has formed a ring in gold and emerald.
The wild cat was first incorporated into Cartier’s designs in 1914 when the house, founded in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier, created a motif in black onyx and diamonds on the background of a timepiece. But it was the renowned innovator and creative Jeanne Toussaint, Cartier’s director of fine jewellery, who unleashed the creature’s potential in the 1930s. She was recognised in Parisian society for her trailblazing attitude and became known as The Panther.
The launch of Cartier’s La Panthère fragrance in 2014 to mark the panther’s centenary serves to honour both the wild cat that’s so entwined with the house and the woman who steered the house forward.
Cartier’s elegant panther has prowled through recent history, decorating some of the world’s most famous women. And while the label’s menagerie of animals is expansive (it also uses crocodile, parrot, serpent and flamingo symbols) it’s undoubtedly the panther that holds the most fascinating allure.