Drive 80 minutes northwest of Florence and eagle-eyed travellers might spot the discreet entrance to Villa Reale di Marlia, a 17th-century palazzo that hugs the foot of the Pizzorne hills, about 10 kilometres from the Tuscan city of Lucca. Concealed by an unassuming set of gates, the sprawling 80-hectare grounds encompass an 18,000-square-metre primary residence, several gardens, an outdoor theatre, clock tower, grotto, additional villas and two chapels, among other hidden delights.
As with similar estates in the region, the pine-green-shuttered Villa Reale has experienced multiple rebirths in its lifetime. Once a medieval fortress belonging to the Duke of Tuscia, the property was converted into a residence and owned by a string of noble families before it was eventually purchased by the Orsetti brothers, Olivieri and Lelio, in 1651. It’s believed the pair demolished the ancient building, using the bones to construct the late Renaissance-style dwelling that stands today.
At one stage, the villa was home to Élisa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister and the Princess of Lucca, who lived there from 1806 and oversaw major works to the estate until the Corsican leader’s abdication forced her exit from the kingdom in 1814. Count and Countess Pecci-Blunt are also past owners; acquiring the villa in 1923, they hosted an array of artists, aristocrats and jetsetters, from Salvador Dalí to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
A phoenix once more, Villa Reale has been the subject of meticulous restoration work in recent years, at the hands of its current owners, Henric and Marina Grönberg. On an average week it’s not unusual to see members of the public touring its pastel-frescoed halls, sipping Friday aperitifs on its manicured lawns or saying their “I dos” beside the lake. For the next few weeks, however, its charcoal double doors are open only to a select few — the media, the ultra wealthy, and friends of the house of Cartier — for the unveiling of the French brand’s new high jewellery collection, Le Voyage Recommencé (The Journey Started Again).
Cartier’s guests are invited to snake their way through the villa, examining the one-of-a-kind necklaces, earrings, rings and tiaras, alongside glittery pieces from the brand’s archives, spread across two floors of the rectangular villa. No detail is spared. A welcome gift contains Cartier-branded hand sanitiser. Golf buggies are on hand to transport guests to the grotto. A pop-up restaurant has been constructed in the aptly named Lemon Garden, where more than 200 citrus plants line a historic fishpond and a sculpture of Leda and the Swan is flanked by a pair of reclining marble giants.
On summer evenings in the early 1800s, the violinist Niccolò Paganini would perform in the gardens for Elisa Bonaparte. Today, a string quartet dressed in pistachio-coloured gowns fills the air with contemporary music covers. The scene might feel as though it has been ripped from an episode of Netflix’s “Bridgerton” series, were it not for the waiters’ Italian accents yanking you back to the equally cinematic reality.
Experiential launches that eschew or supplement the couture calendar are not uncommon in the luxury jewellery landscape. Last year, Cartier flew clients and members of the press to Madrid to view its 100-piece Beautés du Monde collection in the capital’s abandoned British embassy, a Brutalist building that it transformed into a temporary museum inspired by the natural world. A sizeable portion of high jewellery sales are made during events such as these, and Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton are also scheduled to stage destination presentations this year.
For Cartier, however, the stakes seem higher. Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton release multiple ready-to-wear, and sometimes couture, collections annually. And though accessories, timepieces and soft goods feature in Cartier’s product stable, the roots of the Richemont-owned company, and its growth, are in jewellery. In a report released by the Swiss-based conglomerate charting performance for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2023, sales in its Jewellery Maisons division (which includes Cartier alongside Buccellati and Van Cleef & Arpels) increased to about $22 billion. While Richemont doesn’t reveal figures for individual brands, the report notes that “Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels reaffirmed their market leadership with a high level of sales growth and profitability.”
Le Voyage Recommencé is a multi-day Tuscan immersion. Later in the evening, guests will attend a gala dinner in the garden of Florence’s Palazzo Corsini, where the newly appointed global Cartier ambassador Elle Fanning, and the actors Vanessa Kirby, Golshifteh Farahani, Gong Li and Riley Keough, will mingle and model high jewellery creations. Entertainment comes care of the award-winning British singer-songwriter Labrinth, with a surprise DJ set by the Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody. Sore heads will find comfort the following day with a Champagne brunch at the privately owned Villa Medici de Fiesole, a 15th-century UNESCO World Heritage-listed estate perched in the hills overlooking Florence. The objective is clear: high jewellery shines brightest when worn, and it’s imperative that clients feel moved and safe enough in their surroundings to take their multimillion-dollar treasures for a spin.
Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s image, style and heritage director, explains that selecting a location is as much a practical consideration as it is an aesthetic one. Does the region have enough hotels and transport facilities to service the volume (and, assumedly, prestige) of its clients, for example? (Rainero won’t divulge the number of shoppers expected to attend over the next fortnight, offering only that “we count them in the hundreds”.) In tandem, the setting must be suitable “in terms of beauty, in terms of inspiration for our clients, and surprise,” he adds.
The Tuscan capital — the birthplace of the Renaissance — and its surrounding regions not only ticked the boxes in terms of the brand’s logistical requirements, they also align with Cartier’s commitment to artisanal crafts, its obsession with heritage and pursuit of creative innovation. Once the region was decided, the collection’s presentation venue soon fell into place.
By way of explanation, Rainero reflects on the villa at the time of the Pecci-Blunts. “This famous couple at the centre of a cafe society, hosting all those parties with all of our clients, from Jean Cocteau to Barbara Hutton,” he says. “We have a contemporary history linked to Cartier in that house, on the basis of a much longer history, and a very artistic history.”
As with fashion, seasonal jewellery releases can find their shape in imaginative or conceptual themes. The way Rainero describes it, Le Voyage Recommencé manifests more as a statement of fact; this release — chapter one — is a 78-piece voyage to the heart of Cartier’s design identity. As the guardian angel of the company’s heritage and aesthetic language, Rainero works alongside the maison’s high jewellery creative director, Jacqueline Karachi, to establish the intention for the line. Considering the brand’s strong post-lockdown rebound and increasing diversity among high jewellery clientele (Middle Eastern, Asian and Australian markets are reportedly on the rise), this year seemed like the right time to reacquaint the world with what Rainero describes as “the vision of Cartier today, in terms of shapes, in terms of aesthetical vocabulary, in terms of what should be
a beautiful piece of jewellery”.
At Villa Reale di Marlia, the ground floor hosts the never-before-seen collection in which, as Rainero puts it, “everything starts with the stone”. He points to a standout piece, the Distrysia necklace, featuring a modified step-cut hexagonally shaped 13.78-carat diamond the colour of burnt butter. “It’s not the most precious diamond, definitely, but it’s very, very rare in terms of cut,” he says. “It’s very interesting in terms of colour because it’s very warm.”
The shape of the central stone bleeds into the white-gold design, and subtly curved sapphires, amethysts, lapis lazuli, obsidian and pink, brown and white diamonds feather outwards in an abstract rendering of Egyptian scarab wings. “It shows how a piece is conceived at Cartier,” says Rainero. “The design of a necklace itself is totally linked to that asymmetry of a stone.”
Another highlight is the Ondule ring, a stacked art deco-style piece that supports a 0.92-carat grey-violet diamond — among the last of its kind, it was sourced from the Argyle mine in Western Australia’s East Kimberley region, and was acquired by Cartier before the mine’s 2020 closure.
The rest of the exhibit is segmented into the maison’s greatest hits. There’s geometry — a key feature of many Cartier collections — which emerged in the brand’s design books as early as 1903. The businessman and brand heir Louis Cartier was fascinated by the geometric designs, arabesques and patterns at the “Islamic Arts” exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and he integrated them as a signature code of the maison. It is represented in this year’s collection by the architectural Acaste necklace, featuring a 26.04-carat cabochon-cut black opal that looks like the surface of some distant planet.
Flora and fauna, another prominent motif of the house, is present in the diamond-encrusted petals of the Magnolidae set, and a brooch starring a black nephrite jade panther lazing beside a pear-shaped rubellite.
Travel and exploration have been sources of inspiration for the house since its inception in 1847. The Girih necklace — a chromatic alchemy of diamonds, Zambian emeralds and cut-to-measure turquoise that took more than 1,500 hours to create — draws overtly from the foundations of Islamic art and architecture. In keeping with another Cartier tradition of transformable pieces, the pendant can be detached and styled as a brooch.
On the floor above, an expansive selection from the high and traditional jewellery archives is on display. In curating this veritable jewellery box, Cartier enlisted Patricia Urquiola, marking the company’s second project with the Spanish-born, Milan-based designer and architect. In 2021, the brand staged its Sixième Sens par Cartier high jewellery reveal at Il Sereno — the luxury Lake Como hotel Urquiola designed in 2016 — and it recruited her to helm the concept scenography.
“Women gave energy to this villa,” says Urquiola of this year’s presentation. “There is a magical feminine touch in the layers of this villa which [demand] respect.” Indeed, there is a softness to the building’s neoclassical interior; it favours beige and light grey tones, and the floor is a contrasting mix of pale pink and grey terrazzo, and marble. The combined effect is one of gentle envelopment, a sensation Urquiola sought to enhance through the use of plinths made with innovative materials and florals.
Urquiola’s team spent several months in research and development, speaking with the designers and craftspeople at Cartier’s high jewellery workshop in Paris to understand the desire behind each piece. “Everything is intended to announce the incredible energy of the jewels,” she says. “But the real thing is to make them echo, because you can’t imagine how much work is in the back of those designs.”
Urquiola’s scenography, featuring platforms made from thick 3D-printed corrugated waves of ochre-coloured recycled plastic, as well as layers of clay, and crystal, serves as a deftly constructed bridge between the collection and the villa. The word that springs to mind is “perfection”, though Urquiola is quick to dispel the impression. “Don’t think it’s perfect,” she says. “The imperfection is part of the path of doing a beautiful work; being experimental. I think Cartier let me experiment, they didn’t ask me for perfection. They know they have to explore new things.”
Urquiola gestures animatedly towards the plinths of unevenly stacked clay slabs and the rustic arrangements of dried flowers overflowing from their display confines. “I think this week is not a week for a pragmatic idea of selling,” she says (a true creative idealist). “It’s a week of putting the people in a film, in a situation, in an experience of culture — an experience that people understand. And if people appreciate it, they understand then [the] extreme quality of a company like Cartier.”
At that evening’s gala, standing a stone’s throw from the Palazzo Corsini’s onsite artworks (by Rubens, Fra Angelico and Caravaggio), Cartier’s CEO, Cyrille Vigneron, speaks of the significance of bringing the collection to the birthplace of the Renaissance. “What those people at that time — architects, designers, artists, philosophers — did was not to invent something else completely,” says Vigneron. “They looked to the past, they looked to ancient Rome, and from there found ways of aesthetics, philosophy, sculpture and art to create something absolutely modern.
“Because modernity is not to create something new. Modernity is to have fresh eyes on things. To find what can be truly human and universal.”