Angela Berden, a senior jewellery specialist at Christie’s in Geneva, was immediately struck by this Art Deco ruby-and-diamond brooch when it was brought to her for valuation by its present owner. Among a variety of pieces shown to her that day, Berden recalls, ‘I saw the brooch and immediately thought, “That’s something really special.”’ The specialist says that she ‘expected to see a signature’, and sure enough, there was one: Cartier London.
The piece, which will be offered in the Magnificent Jewels sale in Geneva on 17 May, has a glamorous provenance: before it was passed on to the current owner, it belonged to Emily ‘Emmy’ Wehlen, a German singer and celebrated silent film actress. Around 1909 Wehlen left Germany and went to work in the theatres of London as an operetta singer. Two years later, still in her early twenties, she crossed the Atlantic to pursue a career on Broadway and in Hollywood.
A 1911 article in Everybody’s Magazine, an American glossy, described the starlet as ‘very pretty, very graceful, [and] extraordinarily clever’. Wehlen would go on to feature in many films, often in leading roles, before returning her focus to opera. After her death in 1977, her estate and jewellery collection were bequeathed to family and friends. ‘Emmy Wehlen’s life was exceptional, and this brooch is as colourful as she was,’ says Berden. ‘The two went very well together.’
In one sense, explains the expert, the brooch is a product of its time: ‘We can safely date it to the mid-Deco period. The clip brooch first appeared in the mid-1920s and ’30s; this type of jewellery just didn’t exist before.’
It is also a rare Art Deco design that incorporates colourful stones. ‘Unlike many pieces of the time, the brooch doesn’t only feature diamonds,’ Berden continues. ‘The rubies are of important size, perfectly matched and of fine quality.
‘For me,’ adds the specialist, noting how the rubies stand out against the diamond background, ‘this contrast is significant and sets it apart from other Art Deco pieces Christie’s has sold.’
Emmy Wehlen in the film His Bonded Wife, 1918 © Granger NYC / Rue des Archives
By the mid-1920s, Cartier had established itself as the go-to jeweller for European royalty and Broadway and Hollywood stars. Founded in Paris in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier, the company rose to international success in the early 20th century. Cartier opened its first American store in New York in 1909, and moved to a larger site in the city less than a decade later.
Berden considers the ruby-and-diamond brooch archetypal of Cartier’s stylistic innovations. ‘This is a great example of Cartier’s work in the Art Deco period,’ she observes. ‘The way they played with geometric designs and contrasting stones was far more advanced than any other jewellery house at the time.’
Additional iconic Cartier pieces will be offered in Christie’s sale of the collection of Éric Nussbaum, the first Director of the Cartier Collection, as part of the Magnificent Jewels sale in Geneva on 17 May.