Fashion — and the luxury goods industry-at-large — loves a stylish renegade. Think Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel who cut her hair short; made women’s clothes out of men’s underwear fabric and was ‘the first woman to live fully the life of her times’. (Her words, not mine.) Then there was Vivienne Westwood, the high priestess of punk, who stuck a safety pin through Her Majesty’s nose and continues to challenge the fashion establishment with her socio-political manifestos. Not forgetting Rei Kawakubo and her Comme des Garçons label which has deconstructed the very architecture of clothing and challenged our perception of beauty in the process.
But there is another style adventuress who has, until now, remained something of an insider secret. Her name is Jeanne Toussaint, the trailblazing Artistic Director of Cartier from 1933 until her death in 1978.
Toussaint was nicknamed ‘The Panther’ long before she created the bejeweled cats which would prove to be her biggest legacy for the famous French jeweller: panthers and leopards which roared as billion-dollar brooches or growled around the wrists of the superrich. (They have since become part of Cartier’s vocabulary though its signature Panthère collection.)
“The V.I.P.s went crazy for these cats,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s Director of Image, Style and Heritage, as he shows me the original design sketches for the very first one ever created: a yellow gold and black enamel leopard standing proud on a cloudy, 90-carat cabochon emerald that was purchased by Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, in 1948.
“Toussaint understood the necessity for expressive jewellery for women like her who lived an expressive life.”
And Toussaint had a life story that is just as fascinating as her personal style — she only wore a particular shade of inky blue by day, and silk Chinese pajamas by night. Like any good-girl-gone-bad she rebelliously ran away from home in Belgium where it’s been said that her mother’s lover had raped her; and like Chanel, who would soon become her friend, she headed straight to Paris with one simple ambition: financial, sexual and creative freedom.
“Toussaint and Chanel had the same life,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s Director of Image, Style and Heritage. “They even shared the same lovers.”
And so Toussaint arrived into Parisian society as a demimondaine (a woman ‘whose sexual promiscuity places her outside respectable society’, according to one dictionary definition), being quickly set-up in a house with servants by a rich lover.
“In Paris, Jeanne lived a life like many other beautiful demimondaines of that time. She was looked after and she met very interesting guys. Her personality and her independence were her greatest assets.”
It wasn’t long before Toussaint hit something of a jackpot, becoming mistress to Louis Cartier, grandson of Louis-François Cartier, and patriarch of one of Paris’ most famous jewellers.
“They probably met during WWI,” says Rainero. “Louis got divorced from his first wife and wanted to marry Toussaint because he really was in love with her. However, the Cartier family, especially Louis’ brothers — Jacques, who ran the London branch, and Pierre, who was in charge of business in New York — protested on the grounds that it would be bad for business.”
Defeated, Louis decided instead to hire her, putting Toussaint in charge of a new accessories department and giving her her own private salon on the first floor of Cartier’s rue de la Paix flagship store. That office remains today exactly as she left it; watched over by the formidable lady herself from silver-framed photographs: there’s Toussaint on horseback, wearing gold bullion-embroidered riding boots and with her head thrown back in ‘Fuck You!’ fits of laughter, and Toussaint on holiday wearing a turban and ropes of pearls.
“By then her style had become legendary,” says Rainero. “Even Hubert de Givenchy, who was a friend, referenced her signature twisted ropes of pearls for Audrey Hepburn’s costumes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
As Toussaint herself reminisced years later: “At Cartier’s I was named Miss Energy. This enchanted Louis.”
Indeed, such was Toussaint’s spell over everybody she met that when Louis Cartier’s health started to deteriorate he decided that she was the only person to head-up his business.
“It was an audacious decision for the time,” says Rainero, “considering that Toussaint was not a member of the Cartier family.”
And so Toussaint found herself ruling the world Parisian haute joaillerie, just as Chanel ruled over that of the Paris haute couture; both women acting as conduits for the dramatic change sweeping through women’s lives.
To this end, Toussaint’s Modernist, graphic shapes quickly replaced the pretty garlands of Cartier’s Belle Époque style; and big, bold-coloured stones clashed where once only polite white diamonds had glittered. Toussaint’s love of witty ornament added fun to the strictly sleek silhouette of 1930s fashion. First up were her bird and insect brooches that fluttered over her client’s tailored suits, and then, in 1935, Toussaint created the first of her annual Christmas novelties that became must-haves: clips and pins in the form of playing cards and ladybirds; and big cocktail rings where she pumped-up the volume on colour and size.
“Cartier became a sweet shop of sorts with the feeling that it no longer just made traditional jewellery just for kings and queens,” says Rainero. “There was always something new.”
But such daring would inevitably land Toussaint in trouble. In reaction to the Nazi Occupation of France she created a brooch with a blue, white and red bird imprisoned in a cage, symbolic of Paris’s sudden incarceration.
“Jeanne put one in every window of Cartier’s rue de la Paix store,” says Rainero as he laughs. “The Gestapo came in and arrested her for it and put her in jail for three days. She talked her way out of it by saying that she always worked with birds and that the brooch was nothing new.”
With a spirited sense of humour, Toussaint displayed the same brooch — this time with an open cage — when Paris was liberated in 1944.
“She wanted to be proud to be doing something. She was excited to be in a creative field,” says Rainero. “I think she worked for passion, not for money.”
Indeed, Toussaint worked until the very end of her days; the French government paying tribute to her work by awarding her the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.
“Her destiny was the destiny of an adventurer,” says Rainero. “She decided to be somebody and to do something, and that’s the spirit of a true pioneer.”