Watches & Jewellery

“We must avoid the beauty dictatorship”

Last June, Cartier chose the Spanish capital to introduce its new high jewelry collection and used the theme of world beauty. Jewelry that unveiled strong natural, figurative, and symbolic inspirations. In an exclusive interview, Cyrille Vigneron, Chairman and CEO of Cartier International, explores complex topics related to beauty conventions, cultural mixes, and circles back to the much-needed reform of the Responsible Jewelery Council.

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino07 juillet 2022

The French actress of Iranian origin Golshifteh Farahani wears the YASIFAN ring in white gold, tourmaline, rubies and diamonds (DR)
Cyrille Vigneron, President and CEO of Cartier International (DR)

At the heart of Madrid, in the trendy neighborhood of Salamanca, a narrow alley with white walls hides a property with an uncertain profile. The round-shaped façade and multiple corners stands out. After passing through security, the Cartier grooms welcomed press and clients that came to admire the new collection jewels entitled Beauties of the World. The building created in 1966, former headquarters of the British ambassy, was for long abandoned and found its purpose thanks to the ambitious project of Cartier aiming at rehabilitating this architectural curiosity, as though to better show that beauties of the world are many and are constantly reborn. Adornments, showcased by the Spanish artist Jaime Hayon, in the arena-shaped cursives, incorporate rare stones, including a green diamond, a series of hexagon-shaped cabochon emeralds from Colombia, opals from Australia, Ceylon sapphires. Each of them has the ambition to take afficionados on a journey, towards imaginary landscapes, natural or symbolic inspirations. Here a Chinese puzzle, there a detail on a Japanese Kimono or even an Native- American motive. This reminds of Louis Cartier’s influence on the brand’s history, which was built by a specific take on beauty, up close or from afar.

You chose to rehabilitate a building for the purpose of presenting the new collection entitled Beauties of the World. Why this idea?

Cartier chose the Embassy, a radical piece of architecture in the Brutalist
vein from two architects, English WS Bryant and Madrid native Luis Blanco-Soler, for the exhibition (Victor et Simon © Cartier)

It is indeed the first time that Cartier rehabilitates a building, which is then transferred back to its owner. Just as jewelry which never dies, as it can be undone, reinvented, architecture must be able to be restored. It is our contribution to the beauty of Madrid’s heritage, the city which welcomed the international presentation of our high jewelry collection. This participates in a wider thought-process about beauty, which we are also leading on our own industrial infrastructures, with our future jewelry factory in Torino for example. We are rehabilitating an old, abandoned manufacture from the 1970s. We are making it entirely energy-sufficient, and even carbon negative, fed in hydroelectricity and solar panels. It is crucial, even in an industrial environment, to see beauty where it is and to highlight it. This is what defines us: seeing beauty everywhere and making it noble, seeing within screws and cogs formal beauty and making it precious. In our craft, it is important to restitute the aesthetics of industrial elements, rather than hide them.

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The choice of the theme “beauties of the world” implies a cultural dialogue. Is it now more than ever a necessary responsibility at Cartier?

Yes. Considering beauty as a responsibility is also universal. Our craft consists in making objects which have no other function than to be decorative, ornamental, symbolic. Yet does this make them futile? No. We want to leave a more beautiful world to our children, and this embodies all the prime objectives and needs that are peace, well-being, prosperity, finding nature. The ideal of beauty is a fundamental ideal, it elevates us and enriches us. But one must be careful with beauty conventions, who proclaims what they are or aren’t. 

How can we prevent these beauty conventions?

Committed to the preservation of heritage, Cartier undertook the entire renovation of the building, which is opening its doors at last for this event (Victor et Simon © Cartier)

We must avoid the dictatorship of beauty and take a distance from political conventions. There are universal elements which are accepted by all, as of the moment they touch upon our sore spots. I truly believe in a universal sense of beauty. It is true for music as well. The music that touches us doesn’t require to be understood. If one refers to a plato-like definition, we find what we love beautiful. It is both subjective and universal. We shouldn’t encourage beauty standards, but rather love what we find beautiful and be dedicated to that.

Has beauty been euro-centered for too long?

I wouldn’t say that. The world of European luxury was of course built on its own codes. But at the beginning of the 1920s, Europeans quickly found inspiration in the arts of Islam to create art deco, found inspiration in Japanese, and Chinese arts. To find interest in other cultures is a constant research in art. Yet, it is true that in the fields of fashion or design, there can be a tendency to integrate a dominating culture as the only representation of beauty. There are other shapes of beauty to be discovered.

Is there according to you a trend of beauty dictatorship?

Emma Chamberlain, one of Cartier's newest ambassadors (Greg Williams © Cartier)

There are two contradicting trends. On one side, recognizing all types of beauty, everywhere in the world, by including age, gender, origins and on the other hand, there is a sort of identity retraction which challenges cultural appropriation. The latter is a dangerous trend. It is difficult to define a cultural origin, considering how significant population mixes can be. Everything is hybrid. It is the entire history of art and culture, which has constantly been influenced. The Syracuse cathedral is a good example. It has a Doric temple, byzantine apses, a gothic chapel, and a baroque façade. It feeds of these multiple influences. Culture is a giant recycling system, as is beauty.

For a luxury brand deep into the mercantile world, how can you avoid falling into the trap of appropriation?

It is not a trap. We must remain truly curious and be conscious of what a style is, its representation, its symbols. We must respect it justly and find inspiration in it. When Picasso quotes Velasquez, he shows his respect. When Chostakovitch composes something in the style of the Well-Tempered Clavier, his work is inspired by Bach.

There are beauties that are shown, and some we choose not to show. Is beauty political?

APATURA necklace. Platinum, opals, coloured sapphires, sapphires, diamonds (Cartier)

The answer to the question “is beauty societal” is yes, before being political. Questions of representation which seem natural to us or on the contrary shocking are evolutions of common thought which have existed at some point. Italian Renaissance was often open and liberal. The puritanical period came after. Is there a right or wrong?

Those are cultural choices. In the high jewelry collection Beauties of the World, there is for example a Japanese or native American inspiration.

Yes, it’s the choice of showing all the beauties of the world without prejudice, as does the Cartier Foundation for contemporary art. It showcased artists such as Chéri Samba, Malick Sidibé, Takashi Murakami at a time where they were still unknown. Strong statements, which are not from the box-office, nor from a monopolistic point of view of beauty in a region of the world. Of course, choosing to show or to hide can have a religious or political aspect. But we think art should show everything, without offending. There can be limits that we collectively choose not to cross.

What would you say about beauty?

Just like art, one can find beauty almost everywhere, except if we fall into humiliation, denial, decadence. We must remain respectful. When the tsunami hit Japan, photographers remained very respectful, and deliberately decided not to show shocking scenes. There are limits that are traced by respecting dignity and the sense of beauty. However, the will to show the work of craftsmen, but not the one of the industrials, as we can often witness, can be dangerous, as these are voluntary choices and quite political. We must see beauty everywhere and we can see humanity in it. That is the universality of beauty.

The new high jewelry collection Beauties of the World embodies sources of realist, figurative and imaginary inspiration. How can one find continuity in style?

The exhibition revealed the roughly 100 pieces of the first chapter of the Beautés du Monde
collection, as well as a selection of pieces from High Jewellery, Cartier Tradition and Haute Horlogerie. Here actress Tara Emad (Greg Williams © Cartier)

Thanks to delicacy, sophistication, and know-how. It is what I call plural singularity. Each style is unique, expresses an attentive look on beauties of the world. Through repeating some simple motives, like art deco or the principles of Islamic architecture, one can find great richness and refinement. Taking simple things, finding inspiration to see beauty, implies a very subtle look.

Is this collection a model in terms of precious stone traceability?

RITUAL necklace. White gold, rubies, chalcedony, onyx, diamonds (DR)

I wouldn’t call it a model, as it is a process which is still ongoing and has been carried out for year, we see it ever more since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict. Colored and mixed precious stone traceability is complex, it is our job with the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) and the Watches & Jewellery 2030 program.

Speaking of which, it seems that Cartier, just as the other brands of the Richemont group, has rejoined RJC.

Yes, we partially rejoined. On March 30th, we quit as members and as part of the council. The company Alrosa then left, so we agreed to reintegrate the organization, but under conditions. We demanded a governance reform of the RJC. This point is agreed upon by all European and American luxury and jewelry actors. A task force is working on it.

Can you explain the exact role of the Watches & Jewelery 2030 program and why all of the Richemont group is not part of it?

The Richemont group took a proactive stand on environment and carbon footprint, by joining the Science Based Target (SBT) coalition. Cartier has been a trailblazer by committing to “Net Zero” in terms of reducing our footprint by 46% by 2030. And compensating the rest based on 2019. The other brands of the Richemont group stand in solidarity but must be sure to be able to achieve it and how to reach it before officially integrating the initiative. The RJC encompasses a great part of the points which the Watches & Jewelery 2030 showcases, but its challenges in quickly taking a stand regarding important conflicts has shown us that we had to find alternatives. The RJC must reform.

In periods of crisis, do regressions occur in terms of investment?

Short term there can be these kinds of arbitrage. But the Swiss law is moving forward in order to include reporting. The field is evolving quite rapidly. Cartier has committed in having clean factories for jewelry and watches, as well as clean transportation means. These reforms represent a sort of refoundation of Swiss made, based on sustainability and ethics of what is produced in Switzerland. If the actors are part of these norms, the strength of Swiss made will multiply. Taking carbon footprint into account will push towards onshoring, and therefore towards investing in Swiss technology in Switzerland. Luxury brands must have a moral compass in protecting resources. That is the responsibility of beauty.

Do these influences have a value on jewels?

The stone value is only a matter of convention, related to their symbolic sentimental power or scarcity. Each stone is beautiful in their power of evoking. The value of scarcity is a market value. Showcasing the stone, is however, true craftsmanship from mankind’s genius.

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