Jewelry & Watches

How the Cartier Panthère Became a Jewelry Icon

The first bracelet was a custom piece for the Duchess of Windsor, but now you can get one of your own for a cool $1.2 million.

Emeralds, onyx, diamonds, a brooch!” is what Jeanne Toussaint is said to have screamed after spotting a panther in the wild while on safari with Louis Cartier. By then she was already director of Cartier Jewelry, and soon after the Big Cats started prowling the house vitrines.

The Panther can first be spotted in a Cartier wristwatch from 1914, when its signature pattern appeared in diamond and ebony. That year, a Cartier greeting card prominently featured the feline at the feet of an elegantly dressed woman.

Toussaint, who joined Cartier around 1913, had earned the nickname of “La Panthere” from Louis Cartier, perhaps because she wore a full length panther coat, perhaps because she was ferociously opinionated and intelligent; perhaps, some say, for other reasons.

The duchess is wearing a 1937 diamond necklace by Cartier and her 1956 Panthère bracelet.

Toussaint had bigger plans than a postcard for the animals in her kingdom and pushed her team for more figurative three-dimensional pieces. Many visits to the Paris zoo at Vincennes ensued. In 1927 designer Peter Lemarchand joined her team, ready to pounce with the technical skill to realize her vision of three dimensional panthers.

The Duchess of Windsor's Cartier Panther bracelets

Twenty years later, the Duke of Windsor walked in the door. The first three-dimensional Cartier Panther was created in 1948 for his wife, the Duchess of Windsor, using a 116.74 carat emerald from the Duke’s own collection. The cat, in gold and onyx, was perched right above the enormous stone. New year, new Panther. In 1949 the couple commissioned another Cartier brooch, this time coupling a diamond cat with a sapphire. The Duchess is said to have had a preference for blue. It brought out her eyes.

An onyx and diamond Panthère seen displayed in front of a Cecil Beaton portrait of Wallis Simpson at Sotheby’s auction rooms in London.

The Duchess of Windsor's Cartier Panther

The sapphire clip brooch was sold at Sotheby's landmark sale of the Duchess of Windsor’s personal collection in 1987. Price realized? $1,026,667. At that same sale was the fully articulated onyx and diamond bracelet Cartier had created for her in 1952. It sold in 1987 for about $1.2 million and then reappeared at a Sothebys' sale in 2010 where it broke the record for any Cartier jewel—and any bracelet sold at auction—when the hammer went down at $4.4 million.

Iconic? Perennial? Ubiquitous? None of these seems strong enough to describe the Panther.

The Duchess of Windsor was not the only woman prey to the Panther: Daisy Fellowes, the Singer sewing heiress who made Cartier’s Tutti Frutti necklace famous, had her own sapphire and diamond Panther brooch (it sold at Sotheby's in 2008 for $565,000) and other fans included Nina Aga Khan and Barbara Hutton.

Sarah Brightman wear a panther for the opening night of Phantom of the Opera in 1988

How to explain the Panther’s enduring allure? When I have questions like this I turn to the members of what I call the "Jewelry Mafia." So what does Frank Everett, jewelry Instagram star and Sales Director of Sotheby's Luxury Division have to say?

"Iconic? Perennial? Ubiquitous? None of these seems strong enough to describe the ‘Panther' within the design oeuvre of Cartier,” says Everett.

From its first appearance in a jewel created by Jeanne Toussaint and then as a motif in examples of art deco, mid-century, 1980s and contemporary jewels, the panther has been reinvented by Cartier just as the tweed suit has been reinterpreted by Chanel. It has respected the DNA of the original inspiration while updating it for modern tastes. Many jewelry houses have subsequently been inspired by the “Big Cats," but Cartier did it first. And best.

And they still do. A new collection of Cartier watches using Panther jewelry pieces as inspiration was recently unveiled in Paris. 

A ruby, diamond, and onyx Cartier Panther bangle 

And the pieces remain a Holy Grail in the auction world. Next up? A ruby diamond and onyx Cartier Panther bangle with articulated paws and rotating head, decorated with cabochon onyx spots, nose, and pear-shaped emerald eyes, the tail encircling a cushion-shaped ruby weighing 10.01 carats, mounted in platinum. It is for sale at Sotheby's Hong Kong on April 2. In case you know anyone who has $1,020,000 to $1,230,000 and really likes cats.

This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Stellene Volandes
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