We toss the word “icon” around too casually. We use it when we are merely attracted to something, when, by rights, it should be reserved for those heart-stopping things, people or moments that withstand the test of time. This is especially true when it comes to diamond jewelry design.
This is an ode to three spectacular jewels so stellar that that truly deserve the iconic recognition. In this vaunted category happily reside Van Cleef’s revolutionary zipper, the animal magnetism of Cartier’s panther and Tiffany & Co.’s jaunty Diamonds by the Yard. All three of these are not only examples of breathtaking design, but they remain in style despite the vagaries of fashion. And when they are enhanced with diamonds, their seductive power is simply off the charts.
1. Panthère de Cartier
Let’s take them in birth order. We begin with the Panthère de Cartier, a creature who has roamed across thousands of wrists, laid his fierce little body on thousands of necks and encircled countless fingers since he first saw the light of day in 1914. That year, Cartier wove the panther pattern, rendered in diamonds and onyx, into the bracelet of a dazzlingly chic platinum wristwatch, and history was made. A few years later, Louis Cartier gifted his paramour, Cartier designer Jean Toussaint, with a vanity case that featured a full-on panther, also made of diamonds and onyx.
But it took those legendary jewelry connoisseurs, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to really crown this feline king of the diamond jungle. (If you don’t know much about these two, suffice it to say that the story of how an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, convinced the heir to give up his throne for her, rivals anything we know of Charles and Diana or Megan and Harry.)
The Duke loved to buy jewelry—especially from Cartier—for his wife. And she loved to buy pieces for herself as well. In 1948, he commissioned a three-dimensional panther brooch sitting atop a
A 116.74 carat cabochon emerald. But she wanted another, so the next year the Duchess ordered a panther sporting a coat of pavé diamond fur and sapphire spots and resting atop a ridiculously huge 152.35 carat cabochon sapphire. These spectacular pieces sent shockwaves through high society, and pretty soon the couple’s fancy pals—people like Daisy Fellowes, Princess Nina Aga Khan and Barbara Hutton—were running to Cartier for their own panthers.
Since those early days, this stunning beast has made an appearance in virtually every Cartier collection. In fact in 2014, the maison hosted an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris that included 56 panther bracelets, necklaces, rings and earrings.
And good news: if you are longing for your own personal panther, you will be happy to know that Cartier right now is offering a vast assortment of big cats, including a brooch set with 51 sapphires, two emerald eyes, one onyx nose and 604 brilliant cut diamonds totaling 2.88 carats. All yours for the taking.
2. The Zip Necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels
Next up in our trio of diamond jewelry icons is Van Cleef & Arpels’s incredible Zip—and guess who happens to have a major role in this origin story as well. Why it’s none other than our old friend the Duchess of Windsor!
Inspired by the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s newfound penchant for putting zippers in her couture garments, the Duchess supposedly asked Van Cleef creative director Renée Puissant to make her a zipper necklace.
The house obliged, but it was easier said than done. Though they patented the idea in 1938, it took until 1951 for the very first Zip necklace to grace the first sexy decollate. Turns out that although it was a technical nightmare to replicate a plebian working zipper in precious metals and fine gemstones, Van Cleef wanted it to go up and down like a real zipper. The house eventually succeeded, however it still takes up to 1200 hours to complete a single piece, which is why to this day very few are made.
If you are wondering, the fastener is composed of a series of tiny gold or platinum cups held by hooks, which mesh with each other when brought together by a sliding closure. If that isn’t enough, the upper part of the necklace can be detached and the remaining section then zipped up to form a bracelet, leaving the gold tassel hanging fetchingly from one side. So you see, your zipper is really two pieces of jewelry—it’s a bargain! And if you are tempted, there is a diamond-laden one currently listed on the 1st Dibs website—albeit with matching ear clips—for a cool $785,000.
3. Tiffany’s Elsa Peretti Diamonds by the Yard
Our third and final diamond jewelry design icon is Tiffany’s Diamond by the Yard jewelry, created by the much loved, much revered Elsa Peretti, who passed away last March. Peretti was a girl about town, a former model hanging with Halston, when she came to Tiffany in 1974. Though she boasted a rarefied background—she was born to an aristocratic family in Italy and educated in Rome and Switzerland—her groundbreaking designs belied her personal history. Her work was meant to be not just irresistible, but affordable. You didn’t have to wait around for some mug with deep pockets to buy this for you; if you wanted one of Peretti’s delicate diamond-studded chains, you could just get it for yourself.
For her inaugural design, Peretti stationed twelve small diamonds set in gold bezels at uneven lengths on a 36 inch chain; when Halston saw it, he nicknamed it “Diamonds by the Yard.” Soon she added chains of various lengths and with varying numbers of diamonds—you might be a college girl wearing just one, or a doyenne sporting a sparkling neck-mess of yard upon yard.
Peretti herself described her work thusly: “If diamonds are mounted like this the light is different—they look like drops of light, like a stream—very modern.” So popular was her creation that in 1977 Newsweek declared that she had started the biggest revolution in jewelry since the Renaissance.
I will leave it to jewelry historians far more erudite than I to debate this fine point. Suffice it to say that as I write this, an iconic Diamonds by the Yard bracelet is glinting from my wrist, twisting in the sunshine, looking for all the world like drops of light.