In 1922 after years of excavation, archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed a sealed chamber in Egypt, filled with gold and riches. Weeks later in that same chamber, Carter would uncover the tomb of King Tutankhamun. This exciting discovery, in combination with the enduring impact of the 1911 Franco-Egyptian exhibition at the Louvre, sparked an intense fascination with Egyptian history and culture. ‘Egyptomania’ swept across Europe and permeated all areas of society, including art, architecture and fashion. Jewelry firms swiftly embraced this new obsession and produced designs inspired by Ancient Egyptian relics and motifs, and at times incorporated vestiges directly into their jewels.
From scarabs to falcons and sphinxes to hieroglyphics, Cartier incorporated elements from Ancient Egypt into their designs and created some of the most sought-after jewels and jeweled objects during the 1920s and 1930s. The firm focused on a limited output of works – about 150 items total – that today, almost century later, continue to represent an undisputed height in the firm’s history.
This silk evening bag by Cartier is a superb fusion of Art Deco and Ancient Egyptian themes. The black and white motif of the design and use of platinum is highly Art Deco, while the imagery depicted reflects symbols of the ancient civilization. Across the silk bag’s frame, stylized diamond lotus blossoms are set against black enamel. The lotus blossom, Egypt’s national flower, is associated with rebirth, the sun god and creation. Lotus blossoms close at night and sink beneath the water they rest upon. At daybreak, they reopen, emulating the sun’s emergence and disappearance each day.
Toward the edges of the frame on each side, taller flora is depicted, stretching upward toward the sky. These diamond-set motifs represent papyrus, another important symbol of Ancient Egypt. Associated with life and eternity, papyrus once grew in abundance along the Nile River Valley. With stalks up to sixteen feet high, the plant was thought to hold up the sky. In Ancient Egyptian art, Pharaohs were often shown hunting amongst papyrus fields, as a reflection of power, order and eternal life.
Centering upon the clasp of the bag is an enamel and rose-cut diamond Pharaoh. The Pharaoh, or king, was believed to be the intermediary between the gods and mankind. Positioned below this figure is an inversely-set diamond which creates a triangular peak – a pyramid. This meticulously subtle nod to perhaps the most popular association with Ancient Egypt is purely Cartier. The diamond almost goes unnoticed amongst the scale of the evening bag and the accompanying motifs across the frame – and yet this minute detail is a striking reminder of why the house of Cartier is synonymous with master craftsmanship and superior design.