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All that glitters at the Cartier exhibition

A kiss on the hand may be quite continental

But diamonds are a girl’s best friend

A kiss may be grand… but it won’t pay the rental on your humble flat

Or help you at the automat

Men grow cold as girls grow old

And we all lose our charms in the end

But square cut or pear shape these rocks don’t lose their shape

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

— from Gentlemen prefer blondes

Rocks, rocks and more rocks were on display at the National Gallery of Australia. Square cut and pear shaped, they glittered under the light as my family caught the final days of the Cartier exhibition.

Diamonds, emeralds, rubies, turquoise, this is the first time so many precious stones have come under one roof in Australia. According to the NGA, more than 300 pieces were on loan from royal families, celebrities and the Cartier collection itself for the public to see.


A tiara made for a wealthy American socialite who I think later married into royalty

The following necklace is called the Nizam of Hyderabad. Made of platinum, it consists of 13 pear shaped emerald cut diamonds and 38 brilliant cut collet diamonds. It was lent by Her Majesty the Queen for this exhibition.

The necklace was a wedding gift from the Indian prince, Asaf Jah VII, the ruler (Nizam) of Hyderabad. He left instructions with Cartier to let the then Princess Elizabeth pick anything from their existing range to ensure that it was to her taste. She chose a tiara with removable elements that could be worn as brooches and the exquisite necklace.

The Queen took it with her when she toured Australia in 1954 and is featured below in a portrait by Australian artist, William Dargie.

The crowds were packed into each room, waiting their turn to look at jewellery made for the wealthy and famous. Cartier certainly knew how to cater to their tastes. The rest of us openly admired the craftsmanship that went into each piece behind the glass.

The following necklace was incredible.

The Patiala Necklace

Unfortunately, it has a sad past. Created by Cartier for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala in 1928, they say the original necklace contained 2,930 diamonds, including the De Beers. A diamond so big it had its own name.

The necklace disappeared from the Royal treasury of Patiala around 1948 and re-emerged in 1998 at a second hand jewellers with many of its precious stones plundered. Cartier bought the incomplete necklace and took four years to restore it to look like the original. However, it is now made of synthetic rubies and cubic zirconias.


After we leave the exhibition we wander towards the section in the gallery on Australian art. It’s there I come across the small but iconic painting by Russell Drysdale, titled the Drover’s Wife.

The Sydney Morning Herald commissioned Drysdale in 1944 to record the impact of drought and soil erosion in western New South Wales. They tell me the Drover’s Wife was one of the paintings that resulted from this trip.

The title comes from a short story by Henry Lawson. It’s a story of a woman in outback Australia, left to fend for herself and her four children as her husband goes droving. Published in 1892, the story recounts the struggles she had to overcome as she looked after her family alone.

In the foreground of a barren landscape with dead trees and an empty sky, we see a large figure, the drover’s wife. This woman, with the gentle face, stands almost in defiance against the arid landscape and her circumstances.

Her dress is drab and unfashionable. There is not a jewel in sight. Yet she does indeed stand “assuredly, looking out towards the viewer with her feet planted firmly on the ground.”

She doesn’t shine or sparkle, but there is a certain, stark and arresting beauty to the image.

As we head down the escalators to the entrance of the gallery, my husband asks if I enjoyed the Cartier exhibition.

“Yes, it was exquisite,” I answer. “But it was also an unabashed history of power and wealth. The jewels were merely props.”

“Exactly!” Our son chimes in.

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July 2018
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