In the late 1890s, the workshop of Maison Cartier adorned its Belle Époque clients in “garland-style” jewelry fashioned from white diamonds in platinum settings shaped like curled ribbons and bows. Soon, however, a more streamlined style began to emerge. In 1904, the workshop produced a small, rhomb-shaped brooch, decorated with smaller rhombs in diamonds and rubies. By the 1920s, Cartier was regularly producing polychromatic jewelry in a linear, abstract style made up of interlocking or tessellated triangles, squares, lozenges and other geometric shapes that had rarely been seen in Western jewelry. The craftsmen also combined...

In the late 1890s, the workshop of Maison Cartier adorned its Belle Époque clients in “garland-style” jewelry fashioned from white diamonds in platinum settings shaped like curled ribbons and bows. Soon, however, a more streamlined style began to emerge. In 1904, the workshop produced a small, rhomb-shaped brooch, decorated with smaller rhombs in diamonds and rubies. By the 1920s, Cartier was regularly producing polychromatic jewelry in a linear, abstract style made up of interlocking or tessellated triangles, squares, lozenges and other geometric shapes that had rarely been seen in Western jewelry. The craftsmen also combined brightly colored stones such as turquoise, coral and jade, and they experimented with enamel.

What prompted this dramatic change? Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity, a new exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art (co-organized with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris), demonstrates that elements of this so-called “modern” style can in fact be traced to the artwork of Al-Andalus, Mughal India, Morocco, Persia, Turkey and Syria.

As it turns out, Louis Cartier (1875-1942), the creative director of the jewelry house in the early twentieth century, was a passionate collector of Islamic art who supplied his workshop with artifacts from these regions as well as illustrated books on Islamic architecture and design. The curators — Sarah Schleuning and Heather Ecker of the DMA, Évelyne Possémé of the MAD and Judith Hénon of the Louvre — have gathered more than four hundred items from the Cartier archives and the Keir Collection of Islamic Art that show how the Cartier workshop derived motifs from the Middle East and India. Items from the personal collection of Louis Cartier are displayed alongside archival photographs, period glass negatives, scrapbooks, plaster casts of now-lost jewelry and sketchbooks from the Cartier workshop.

The exhibition is thus, in one sense, an opulent celebration of a single man’s accomplishments and influence. Yet there’s a longer history at play: the Cartier jewelry dynasty was founded long before Louis began his reign. In 1847, the Parisian goldsmith Adolphe Picard passed on his workshop to Louis-François Cartier, his most skilled craftsman. Louis-François began to take on private clients, and, by the 1850s, during the flashy Second Empire period, he became the jeweler of choice to an aristocratic, ball-going clientele. (Among his most loyal customers was Princess Mathilde, a first cousin and onetime fiancée of Napoleon III, who purchased over two hundred pieces.) In his later years, he studied Eastern civilizations and languages, an interest he passed on to his successors along with his workshop.

Louis-François had three grandsons: Louis, Jacques and Pierre. Each played a key role raising the brand’s international profile. Pierre, the shrewd businessman, opened a London branch in 1902 and a New York one in 1909. Jacques, the adventurous jewel-sourcer, took over the London branch before traveling to India and the Persian Gulf from 1911-12, where he sought out Bahraini pearl merchants and royal clients, including several maharajas who had their traditional jewels reset in the brand’s signature platinum. It was Louis, the creative director, who in 1903 suggested they move their Paris headquarters to the Rue de la Paix, which runs from the Place Vendôme to the Opéra Garnier. (A Cartier store still stands at the original address.) Shortly after, in 1905, an antiques dealership called Kalebdjian Frères opened just across the road. Hagop and Garbis, the Armenian brothers who ran this firm and a second in Cairo, supplied both private collectors and well-known institutions, including the British Museum.

Around the same time, Louis began acquiring objects from the Middle East, East Asia and India. While his large collection — which included fifteenth-century Afghan painted manuscripts, sixteenth-century Iranian bookbindings and a seventeenth-century Mughal jade sprinkler — was dispersed after his death, researchers have been able to reconstruct parts of it using receipts in the Cartier archives from the Kalebdjian Frères and other dealers. Louis purchased some of these objects for himself and some for his boutique, which in the early twentieth century sold antiques alongside new designs. (Cartier invoices from 1912, for instance, show that J. Pierpont Morgan bought a pen-box lid from seventeenth-century India, made of carved walrus ivory inlaid with gold and turquoise.) Other purchases became apprêts, the term used by the jeweler to describe artifact fragments, such as Persian miniature portraits or Indian carved emeralds, that could be reused in new designs.

Louis was far from alone in admiring in the art of these regions. Many Europeans were exposed to Islamic art for the first time in several major exhibitions held in the first decades of the twentieth century. In 1903, the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs assisted Gaston Migeon, the curator of decorative arts at the Louvre, with the Exposition des arts musulmans, a scholarly show that treated the artifacts as objects worthy of serious study, in contrast to the tawdry “Orientalizing” approach taken in earlier European exhibitions of Islamic art. Louis saw a similar exhibition in Munich in 1910. Henri Matisse, who also attended, called it “extraordinary.”

Over the next few years, Islamic art became a symbol of modernity. As another Armenian dealer, Dikran Kelekian, said in 1909: “every principle of this seven-hundred-year-old art is without exception in tune with the needs of contemporary artists.” That year, Louis Cartier hired Charles Jacqueau as head designer. Jacqueau’s sketchbooks show him experimenting with tessellations of geometric forms, sketching Islamic artifacts from life and copying patterns from illustrated books. Particularly influential was an 1865 French translation of Grammar of Ornament by the English architect and color theorist Owen Jones, who conducted a years-long study of the Islamic decoration on Spain’s Alhambra palace.

Jacqueau also sketched performances by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which premiered Schéhérazade in Paris in 1910. That production, which featured imaginative and brightly colored costumes and sets designed by the Russian painter Léon Bakst, fed the public’s appetite for all things Eastern. But Louis Cartier and Jacqueau, as well as later Cartier designers such as Jeanne Toussaint, had little interest in conjuring up a romanticized “Arabian Nights” look for their clients. Instead of creating theatrical imitations of jewelry from Islamic regions, they mined and mixed motifs from architecture, carpets, pottery, wooden latticework and even caskets.

A rectangular vanity case from 1924, for instance, bears a striking resemblance to a nineteenth-century box from Qajarera Iran and was covered using mother-of-pearl inlay techniques from the Gujarat region in western India. The central jewel, an emerald carved into the shape of a leaf, is an apprêt of unknown origin. A tiara from 1936, meanwhile, is adorned with two rows of turquoise stones, each carved into a boteh, a stylized, almond-shaped bouquet seen on the patterned skirt of a woman in a nineteenth-century Iranian painting. The workshop also produced a series of diamond strap bracelets in the 1920s resembling abstract friezes with interlaced patterns of stars as well as other shapes common in Islamic art, such as palmettes and scrolls.

It is not surprising that the religious and cultural significance of these forms seems to have been lost in translation. The designers at Cartier were understandably more concerned with the visual rather than the transcendent aspects of the motifs found in Islamic art, often filtered through book illustrations. Louis Cartier and his workshop nevertheless engaged seriously with Islamic art, and by studying it to forge a new, “modern” style, treated it as an equally valid source of inspiration as historical Western art.

Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art from May 14 to September 18, 2022. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2022 World edition.