The Ming Bling: 11 Artefacts That Defined Both China and Cartier During the Ming Dynasty

We all know that the Far East has always been a source of fascination and exoticism for the West – as evidenced by Asia’s constant colonialism throughout its history, and our own history books!

Paintings and writings of its culture, beauty as well as architecture has always been part of the Western fixation, and for jewellery powerhouse Cartier, this wasn’t any different: China played a huge part in inspiring their designs. ‘Chinese-style’ objects were first mentioned as early as the 1870s in Cartier account registers and since the 1920s, Chinese-inspired pieces were produced (with dragons and chimaeras making appearances on designs).

Image: Cartier

But, thanks to Cartier’s ties with China (and their deep understanding of preserving cultural heritage), a very special exhibition has been set up for all history and culture lovers around the world. Beautiful collectibles, jewellery and decorative items from the Ming Dynasty (years 1368 to 1644) have been restored and are currently on display at the Palace Museum, at The Forbidden City in Beijing, until 31 July 2019.

By the way, it’s also one of the biggest exhibitions in all of the Palace Museum’s history so be sure to get a sneak peek. Or even go there yourself, if you’re into it.

Image: Cartier

The items on display, some private and some royal, include designs from the Cartier archives as well as Beijing’s Palace Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Australia, the Qatar Museums and Switzerland’s Musée international d’horlogerie, La Chaux-de-Fonds.

In the same vein of protecting culture and heritage, the exhibition aims to boost cultural exchange and display intercultural connections and the bonds shared by the East and West.

So, What Are Some Of The Highlights?

1. Six Antique Timepieces That Are the Best in the World

Mystery clock and large portique mystery clock. Image: Cartier

The Palace Museum and the Cartier Watchmaking Manufacturer in La Chaux-de-Fonds jointly restored six antique timepieces held by the Palace Museum. The restoration experts from the Palace Museum, led by renowned horologist Wang Jin, focused on the restoration of the external appearance of the timepieces, while Cartier worked on the movements of the timepieces.

These timepieces are the best of its kind in the world – complex timepieces from the West that represent expert watchmaking skills during the Qing Dynasty that will now chime in the 21st century, after over a hundred years.

2. Pieces From Louis Cartier’s Own Collection

Materials such as lacquer, coral and jade with motifs such as Chinese characters of divine entities were often featured in Cartier’s 1920s collections. The Carp clock from 1925, for example, was made from a piece of carved ancient jade with two fish swimming in the waves. Mother-of-pearl, on the other hand, was used to decorate vanity or powder cases.

Carp clock with retrograde hand and Bridge case – both by Cartier. Image: Cartier

Louis Cartier’s collection provided some reference for all the designers that brought in Eastern influences: such as a Chinese porcelain plate painted with famille verte enamels, which served as a model for a vanity case depicting a Chinese woman sitting in a garden, dating all the way back to 1928. You can catch a glimpse of both the vanity case and the plate at the Palace Museum.

Porcelain plate with wucai figure decorative painting from Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Emperor’s reign and Cartier’s Chinese vanity case from 1928. Image: Cartier

3. A Brooch Owned By Jeanne Paquin, a 1910s Couturière

A special brooch done in the 1920s, which was purchased by Jeanne Paquin, fashion designer. Image: Cartier

A brooch created by Cartier in the 1920s had two dragons facing each other with a central pearl. This, as you may know, is often seen in Chinese furniture and architecture. In the East, dragons represent goodness and authority – a complete 360 from how the West often depicting it as something destructive or frightening.

4. Cartier’s Famous Bird Brooch

The famous Bird brooch created in 1948. Image: Cartier

The phoenix is synonymous with many things: peace, prosperity, goodness, life and immortality. It also inspired Cartier’s special order in 1948, which featured eight various cuts of diamonds. Other indications of the phoenix can also be seen on an imperial robe in the Palace Museum collection.

5. A Special Vanity Case Created by Jeanne Toussaint

Created in 1919, with gold, platinum, diamonds, Onyx and black enamel. Image: Cartier

Cartier’s S Department (as in Silver or Soir) was created in the mid-1920s under Jeanne Toussaint’s supervision. The exhibition displays a vanity case from 1919 which belonged to her, and it includes one of the very first depictions of the Cartier Panther. Toussaint also gave rise to the production of vanity cases for makeup, travel, smoker accessories or evening bags that introduced Asian motifs – which women began using as companions to show off during society gatherings.

6. A Jadeite Necklace Belonging to Barbara Hutton, for Her Wedding

Photograph of Barbara Hutton wearing her Cartier jadeite bead, ruby and diamond necklace, 1933. Image: Cartier

As the granddaughter of the Woolworth retail chain founder, Barbara Hutton collected some of the best pieces in the world. Her most famous one is a jadeite necklace, an emerald colour shaped close to perfection, and whose beads were cut from the same boulder. Initially, the clasp was decorated with a marquise-cut diamond, but Barbara had asked for it to be replaced with calibré cut rubies.

7. A Cheongsam Owned by a Chinese Sugar Empire Heiress Presented to Prince Alexis Mdivani in 1933

Photograph of Wellington Koo by Horst P. Horst, which was the exact cheongsam on display. Image: Cartier

Madame Wellington Koo, born Oei Hui-Ian, was brought up in Java and then in Europe where she became fast included in high society. She married diplomat Wellington Koo in 1920 and lived in Paris, Geneva, New York and Washington before finally settling in Beijing, where she fell in love with the city’s arts, architecture and crafts.

8. A Court Robe Worn During the Qing Dynasty

Bright yellow imperial silk robe with Twelve Motifs design. Image: Cartier

One can spot arts of cavalry and archery – which dominated during the first part of the Manchu period – on this robe. Once again, the bird makes an appearance here, upon closer inspection.

9. Gravity Clocks

Gravity clock by Cartier, created circa 1910. Image: Cartier

The lines are blurred between Chinese-inspired Cartier clocks as well as European-style timepieces at this exhibition, showing how aligned the ties between the East and West were. These instruments were used to measure time, using a cylinder that rolls down an inclined base over an eight-day period.

10. Screen Clocks from 1926

Screen clocks made out of platinum, gold, white jade, onyx, coral, mother-of-pearl, diamonds, red and black enamel. The dial, without glass, is of ancient white jade carved with a Chinese scene in front and a landscape at the back. Made in 1926. Image: Cartier

Inspired by the study screens of ancient Chinese scholars, screen clocks were made with ancient engraved white jade plaque, decorated with an enamelled dragon on the back. The exhibition also reveals a delicate antique table clock in nephrite representing a tortoise, a symbol of long life. The opening of the shell of the tortoise’s back comes with a dial inlaid with mother-of-pearl, lapis-lazuli and turquoise.

Tortoise table clock created by Cartier in 1928. Image: Cartier

11. Prince Tsai Lun’s Most Prized Watch

Photograph of Prince Tsai Lun taken in 1914, and the Tortue wristwatch. Image: Cartier

Just a few days before World War I broke out in May 1914, a young Chinese man visited the Rue de la Paix boutique in Paris. Under the name ‘Prince Tsai Lun’, he acquired a Tortue wristwatch and several other items such as a vanity case, a handbag and others.

His real name was Aisin Gioro-Tsai Lun, and he was the great-great-grandson of the Emperor Qianlong. His father was Yi Kuang, Minister of Foreign Affairs who served under the last three emperors of the Qing dynasty.

The watch that he had encountered had created a sensation back in China, and subsequently encouraged others to do the same; after all, travelling abroad was a popular choice for those in the imperial circles and high society as the West posed far better options for studying or discovering. That was one of the many ways Cartier began rising in the Middle Empire – through a meeting of two worlds.

If you consider yourself to be a true lover of history, culture as well as artefacts (more importantly, jewellery and accessories for that matter), be sure to catch the exhibition by the 31 July.

Opening day and hours for the exhibition:

Open Tuesday to Sunday. Close on Mondays (except for national holidays)

08:30 – 17:00. Last entry at 16:10 (last ticket sold at 16:00)

Ticket price:

  • While Beyond Boundaries: Cartier and The Palace Museum Craftsmanship and Restoration Exhibition is free for entry, visitors are required to buy the entry ticket to thePalace Museum.
  • Tickets are priced at 60 RMB (approximately RM65). 50% concession for age 60 years old and older. Free admission for children under 1.2 meters in height
  • It is highly recommended to book tickets in advance online. Visit the ticketing website here.
  • Please note that foreign visitors are required to provide passport numbers during the online booking.

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Written by Kathlyn Ursula D'Souza

Professionally a journalist, personally a lover of all things fried chicken, Gogorn (her big black German Shepherd) and ice cream.

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