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  • Harry Fane

Do our perceptions need to change?Cartier in the 1970s.

In the 1970s and early 80s, Cartier embarked on a mission to re-create many of their 1920s and 1930s table clocks. The designs were unashamed copies of their earlier clocks, but the aesthetic was altered to appeal to 1970s taste. It was at this same time that a fabled Oriental potentate and well-known client of Cartier was building a splendid, gilded palace in the Far East where many of these new jewelled clocks were to find a home. Of course, at the time, true Cartier aficionados were shocked at the somewhat crass and inelegant designs. Where there had been subtlety and refinement, there now was something rather different. But whilst it is easy to criticise, we have to remember that Cartier was a commercial company and commerce sadly has to come ahead of artistry.

By the 1970s, there were problems facing any workshops wanting to make beautiful objets d’art. First, taste had changed dramatically but it's too easy to be critical about that. Second, and more difficult was finding raw materials such as rare jade panels or beautiful pinky/red coral was almost impossible. Huge clean samples of rock crystal or 18th Century Chinoiserie panels that Cartier had originally used, were prohibitively expensive. When, in the 1970s, Cartier chose to use less refined materials, these actually fitted the ‘look’ they were seeking quite well and they were easy to incorporate into the designs they were copying. And whilst, good materials were hard to come by, there was also a huge change in craftsmanship. If one disassembles a vintage Cartier clock, it is simply extraordinary how every piece is so carefully fitted and held together with tiny, handmade screws. What one cannot see, is really just as extraordinary as what one can. By the 1970s however, the workshops, who were certainly looking to save money and time, discovered glue did just the same job as the tiny, handmade gold screws and using veneers of lapis lazuli or nephrite, for example, was just as effective as using full blocks of hardstones. Try taking one of these clocks apart, it’s a nightmare.

So, why all this about these 1970s creations? Because yesterday one (see above) fetched

$ 640,000 at auction in New York. This is a whopping price by any standard. It is what one would expect to pay for a 1920s or 1930s Cartier original. Even 1920s Cartier Mystery Clocks (la creme de la crème of Cartier clocks) have not sold for so much.

So, perhaps, much as it hurts, we need to change our perceptions. We probably need to re-evaluate these late made clocks. Clearly, there is a new audience looking at them but I wonder if they know the story behind them? Perhaps this will help them re-evaluate the other way.

Below is the original 1920s Cartier jade panel clock from which the above was derived. The remaining two photographs illustrate one of the magnificent 'Portico' Mystery Clocks (left) made in the mid-1920s next to its 1970s re-incarnation. I rest my case.

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