Born in 1887, Jeanne Toussaint was the daughter of lacemakers from the south of Belgium in the city of Charleroi. She grew up with handmade goods surrounding her and knew quality from a very young age. Although her small family of four (Jeanne, her parents and her sister) was not wealthy, their specialty was fine lace, so the topics of fashion and style were always part of her life. One can only image that this time period was the happiest of her childhood, so it is understandable that she would develop an out-spoken, political point of view years later, when the town of Charleroi was used as a strategic location for tug of war between Germany, Belgium and France during WWI, nearly being destroyed over and over again.
By the time she was a teenager, Jeanne’s father had passed away and her mother had taken in a German lover, at which time, she and her sister ran away; disgusted by his abusive behavior and sexual advances. Charlotte, her older sister, wound up in Paris, while Jeanne headed to Brussels at the (not-quite-ripe) age of 13. She became the lover to an older man, the Count of Quinsonas, who was from a family with a military history dating back hundreds of years, and who was also a pedophile who had abandoned his station with the army and was in living in Brussels, exiled from France, with this innocent young girl, struggling to find a place that was safe, where she could thrive and create a name for herself. She spent three years with him in Brussels before he returned to his post with the French army, taking her with him to Paris, and dumping her upon his family’s demand.
In Paris, Jeanne was thrilled to be reunited with her sister Charlotte. Charlotte had paved a similar path for herself, not in the servitude of just one man, but many, entertaining and dancing her way through each night, man by man. This was the era of the Parisian cocottes, and prostitution had been fueling the artistic movements of french culture for over 50 years. The underbelly of the city turned its face and stepped out from the dark of night, filling the laps of men at bars and cabarets from the 1870s through WWI. Dramatically dressed in lace and ruffles galore, many of the these young women were registered with the city of Paris as prostitutes and received health check ups and had to belong to a registered brothel (or Maison Clos as they were called.) Sadly, many of these young women were not registered and lead hard lives as homeless orphans or street walkers with no rights and turned to prostitution because the legal age of consent was only 13!
Charlotte seems to have been more on the entertainment-side of the night life, and 16 year old Jeanne found herself enthralled in it, absorbing the scandals and drama exploding in front of her along with the painters and illustrators of the time, following suite of those artists who made the movement know, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who is probably the most notable documenteur, famously an advocate for the cocottes and gaggles of homosexual male prostitutes and cross dressers that lived with them, but died at the young age of 35 in 1901, proceeding Jeanne. The cocottes of Paris are set apart from most prostitutes in history because they were not only sex workers, but dancers, actresses, and designers of hand made costumes that were influencing almost every part of aesthetics of the continent. These women represented the liberation of womanhood and offered a modern, garçonne, or flapper look that was easier, without the constraints of bustiers and constrictive undergarments, and they actually kept a lot of the money that they made, unlike centuries gone past. With the protection of the city, the Maison Clos also provided a safe haven to teenagers like Jeanne, who found themselves with nowhere else to go, and the open arms of maternal woman who had been down the same path because of France's lax laws on prostitution and age of consent.
Although young, Jeanne became a very influential opinion at this time, casting her critical eye upon all of these creative works and was known for her caring, yet outspoken take on modernity. Paris was thick with cigarette smoke and artists alike, and one who stood out to many designers as well as young Jeanne was Monsieur George Bariber. Barbier, a quiet and reserved young man, was known for his collaborations with fashion designers in particular through publications such as the Gazette du Bon Ton, Modes et Mariners, Vogue and many more. Designers like Lanvin, Jeanne Paquin, and a young Coco Chanel collaborated with him on illustrations of the dresses they had made. Both Barbier and Jeanne had already developed friendships with one of the Cartier brothers; Louis. It was in 1913 when Louis Cartier commissioned George Barbier to come up with an image for an ad campaign, that the moment was pivotal for Barbier, Cartier and later, Toussaint. The image that he came up with features a woman standing at the foreground of two Eurasian-styled columns with such long strands of beads/pearls hanging from her neck that she drapes them in a shrug of grand gesture. Behind this modern, barefoot, androgynous woman sits a stealth black panther. Louis loved this image and used it, hiring Toussaint the same year as the director of bags, accessories and objects at Cartier, calling her his little Pantheré, which stuck as Jeanne’s nickname until the day that she died in 1976! I can’t help but wonder about the friendship that must had been between Toussaint and Barbier because it seems almost planned how these events came together!
In the 1920’s the abstraction of the masculine and the way that Europeans had seen the masculine came to the forefront of fashion. Loose, flowing dresses-like saris from India were worn with matching pants underneath, and the use of the Satoir, taken from the necklaces of Indian Mughal jewelry and the Maharaja’s collection became popular with the costumed ladies of Paris. Cartier focused on this exotic and worldly expression of the modern woman as a form that did not fit inside the constrains of historic European fashion. The Tank wrist watch, for instance, was the first watch that was designed to be worn daily by a woman, which was not a pocket watch. The trinity ring, which had come out in 1924, was also something that Toussaint saw as a classic, and through her career she had designed over and over again, adding stones, changing metals and evolving the brand. Although the original was not of her efforts, her retakes were inspired by her appreciation of the iconic Jean Cocteau, who had worn two of the trinity rings (rolling bands) on his left hand pinky.
During her first few years at Cartier, Toussaint designed hand bags that served the woman using them well, wallets that accommodated her needs, and luxurious necessaires for the wealthy heiresses of the 20’s like Merriweather-Post and Daisy Fellowes, complete with compacts, money clips and lipstick tubes in gold, platinum and fine gems. It was easy for the rich women of Europe and America to work with a woman like Jeanne, who was able to communicate clearly about the needs that might come up for a lady about town, or how to design a necessity so that it functions as well as being stylish and timeless. It was because of these relationships that in 1933 Louis appointed Jeanne the director of Fine Jewelry at Cartier, Paris. Many American heiresses whose fortunes had not been dented by the crash of the stock market made their ways to Paris, setting up residence.
That generation of women was filled with fashion power-houses. In the Americas Barbara Hutton and Maria Felix shined glamour and drama, while in Vienna style meant the poetic lives of Adele Bloch-Bauer and Emilie Louise Flöge. In Paris, however, irreverence and feminine triumph were the legacy of two, Jeanne Toussaint and Gabrielle Chanel. Unlike the celebrity of actresses or heiresses, and unlike many of the designers and studios of Vienna, the Paris names kept in production throughout and after the war, famously so.
One of the most tense moments of Toussaint’s career at Cartier was a 1941 commission that she herself set forth for her designers as a form of social response to the German occupation of the french capital. She asked that they design a caged nightingale to represent the oppression of the Parisian public for their main atelier's window display. When she put the small brooch in the center of that display, she was arrested by the gestapo for her social commentary. It was Gabrielle Chanel, one of her best friends, who came to her rescue, using any and every connection she could to get La Pantheré out from behind bars. In September of 1945, she commissioned her jewelers to make the same brooch, but this time with the door to the cage opened, and the nightingale, wings spread, about to take flight, singing to its hearts content for Paris was once again free and the war was over.
From the mid-30’s to the 50’s Toussaint’s collaborations included Mona Williams, Grace Kelly, Wallace Simpson Windsor, (all whom married royalty,) as well all of the mentioned woman above. These relationships afforded Cartier the ability to keep their doors open through WWII and to grow along with the booming 50’s. With the Duchess of Windsor, an artistic endeavor to create a menagerie of animal-themed jewels unfolded between Wallace and Jeanne. The two designed dragonflies, ladybugs, birds of paradise, tigers and lions, as well as a spectacular brooch of a flamingo, a very recognizable piece in most jewelry aficionados memory. The flamingo was inspired by a private story between the Duke and Duchess and for her birthday in 1940, the Duke met with Toussaint and had the flamingo commissioned out of jewelry from their collection.
Toussaint was finally married to her long-time partner Baron Pierre Hely d’Oissel in 1954 and took the title of Baronne, although from the day that she was hired at Cartier by Louis Cartier, it is said they too had a passionate, yet secretive relationship behind closed doors, which is how she ended up with her title at the company; in 1924 Louis had married a Hungarian aristocrat, and upon the appointment of Jeanne to the creative director of jewelry in 33’, he stepped away from the company’s creative side entirely, and spent years with his wife in Budapest to avoid the gossip about him and Jeanne. Louis was defiantly the love of her life, and she seems to have remained single after the passing of both her husband and Louis.
She remained working, headstrong as ever, spearheading the style of the late 50’s and 60’s, returning her focus to the exotic influences that began her career at Cartier; India specifically. This was the time that the Tutti Frutti (all colors) collection was revived, and has since been had revivals in each of the following decades. A redesigned version of the Hindu Necklace was made for Daisy Fellowes creating a buzz about the multi-colored pieces featuring emeralds, rubies and sapphires with diamond accents around all of the carved stones. This is also when Grace Kelly was married to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 and, of course, her engagement ring, tiara, earrings and necklace were all commissioned by the Prince for the special day. In fact the Grimaldi family is still regular clients of the brand due to those early relationships between Rainier, Kelly and Toussaint.
Jeanne’s lasting signature works are from her pet namesake from Louis; La Pantheré. She filled her home with cat's pelts, collected and gifted to her from all around the world. Her large cat themed brooches, bracelets and even rings were exquisitely made out of the finest, most decadent materials. She was also one of the first designers to make a handbag that had a flap/lid, a chain to tie a scarf to, a handle that could be worn upon the shoulder, while made large enough to hold a book, something that was important to women. The Jeanne handbag is still made to this day, and is easily one of the most iconic fashions of the twentieth century.
In 1970 Jeanne Toussaint officially retired from Cartier. She spent her remaining years at her home in Paris at rue des Belles Feuilles, passing away at the age of 89. Like the caged nightingale, why would any woman of grace accommodate oppression, rather than the utilities that allows for freedom? This sense of design and the strength found in it is why I chose to highlight Jeanne Toussaint this week. Her resilience and grace granted her the ability to see the possibilities of this world, not only for women, but for the use of design, and the continuity of the house of Cartier and French progression through the 19th and 20th century. Like a panther roaming the wild, her power is palpable and her spirit continues to influence the hearts of creatives like me.