Of Cartier and Crocodiles
Of all the women who have made dramatic entrances at Cartier, María Félix, one of Mexico’s most famous actresses, may have been the most memorable. The jewelry house still talks about the day she arrived, carrying a baby crocodile that she wanted to be the model for a necklace.
The relationship between Cartier and the woman known to her fans as La Doña (in English, the Lady) started in the 1950s and spawned a stylistically creative chapter in the jeweler’s history that included a line of watches named for the movie star.
Some of those creations are to be displayed in a new exhibition at the Jumex Museum in Mexico City, titled “Cartier Design, A Living Legacy,” scheduled to open March 15 and run through May 14. The show traces Cartier’s design history, with a special focus on influences from Latin America.
“María Félix brought her outsized boldness to Cartier, and trusted Cartier to create imposing pieces that were always in good taste,” Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s image and heritage director, said in a video interview from the jeweler’s Paris headquarters. “Did María Félix influence Cartier or was it the other way around? I would say it was a two-way street.”
The show, which is to cover 700 square meters, or 7,535 square feet, in the museum, totals about 160 pieces, some dating to 1850, and including jewelry, vintage and modern timepieces, workshop drawings and photographs. Among them are mystery clocks, a term for timepieces with no visible mechanism, which once were owned by the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton; a sampling of La Doña watches first introduced in 2006 as a tribute to Ms. Félix; and various iterations of the Santos, a wristwatch named for the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.
“Only two lines of Cartier watches have been named after real persons: Santos-Dumont and La Doña,” Mr. Rainero said.
Some pieces were lent by private and institutional collections, but the majority came from Cartier’s own collection, including special orders by Ms. Félix. Her reptilian menagerie, for example, included a life-size, fully articulated snake necklace, made in 1968 and pictured on the cover of the show’s catalog, and her famous double baby crocodile necklace (the product of her dramatic arrival), created in 1975.
Mr. Rainero said some of the pieces have not been in Mexico since the 1999 Cartier retrospective hosted by the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. “María Félix attended that show as a guest of honor,” Mr. Rainero noted. “She had strong views about how to exhibit her pieces.”
The scenography for the new show was informed by the geometry of Aztec architecture. “We created sloped, textured walls in concrete inside the exhibition hall, with horizontal strata like Mexico’s pyramids,” the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo said in a video interview from Mexico City. “The simplicity and unfinished quality of concrete creates a contrast with the Cartier pieces that brings out their precious, handcrafted quality.”
Ms. Félix, who died in 2002, never saw the line of La Doña watches, which have a trapezoid case, meant to resemble a crocodile’s head, on a broad bracelet with links inspired by reptilian scales.
“La Doña watches have an overall harmony despite being completely asymmetrical with feminine curves on a masculine bracelet,” Mr. Rainero said. “They are Cartier’s contemporary translation of the eccentric personality of a great woman.”
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