Jeanne Toussaint (1887 – 1978), the inimitable “Panther” of Cartier Jewelry, was one of the driving forces in jewelry styles in the early and mid 20th Century. During her time as director of fine jewelry, she was responsible for the creation of some of the most magnificent and renowned pieces ever created by the great jewelry house. Her taste was legendary and her devotion to the success of the brand’s unique creations helped promote the eminence of the company through trying political and economic landscapes.
After over a decade working in the silver department of the renowned Cartier jewelry house; Toussaint became director of haute joaillerie at Cartier Paris in 1933. Her pet name was “panther” and though Cartier had created animal inspired jewelry before, it was with Toussaint that the famous panther motif became prominent. Varying reasons for the nickname abound including the myriad panther pelts which lay scattered about her home as carpets and coats, and her tough-as-nails judgments on which Cartier designs would be approved for the house. She possessed Cartier’s first full figurative representation of the panther on an onyx vanity case gifted to her by Louis Cartier.
Toussaint was always at the forefront of fashion. She was always impeccably coiffed and patronized the finest couturiers that Paris offered. She considered jewelry to be as important to fashion as clothing and was a leading figure in many of the jewel trends of the time. It was as though she had an instinctive understanding of high fashion which when paired with a hawkish comprehension of public or consumer desire made her a force to be reckoned with. No wonder, then, that her nickname equated her with the sleek yet ferocious panther.
Toussaint famously made Indian jewelry stylish in the 1930’s when she brought back yellow gold as a fashionable metal for jewels. She had been wearing Indian style jewelry since the 1910’s and Cartier had already been crafting the phenomenal carved gem masterpieces for a number of years by the time the style came in vogue in the 1930’s.
The Cartier Panther brooch was dreamed up by Toussaint, who by all accounts was enormously fond of the sleek felines, for the Duchess of Windsor in 1948. Commissioned by the Duke of Windsor, the three-dimensional piece consisted of a large, 100+ carats cabochon emerald on top of which stretched a yellow gold panther with black detail. Later, the piece was recreated with diamonds and onyx and featured a cabochon sapphire — it is this secondary version which has become the iconic motif of the Cartier jewelry line. The design became a symbol of the great jeweler which has persisted to this day.
Toussaint also famously displayed the “Caged Bird” brooch in the Cartier Paris store in 1942. The brooch was a symbol of Nazi-occupied France and caused enough of a stir that she was summoned to provide an explanation by the general headquarters of the occupying troops. As soon as France was liberated, the Cartier store began displaying a “Freed Bird” brooch.