When East Meets West: The 'Pagoda' Jewel

Susan Abeles examines the fascination of the West with Eastern 'exoticism' and how it influenced the design of jewelry in the early 20th Century.
Susan Abeles, Senior Consultant
May 10, 2023

The West has always had a preoccupation with the exotic East. Originally, maps were drawn with the East, the Orient, where now the north is standard; the central point of reference.  It was long thought that the Garden of Eden was in the Orient. Tales of Gog and Magog, fables of Prester John, a monarch of untold power and wealth and stories of fantastic creatures amazed and delighted. Marco Polo’s account of his sojourns in the East only continued to fuel this fancy. The riches brought to the West via the Silk Road (the Silk Route) only added to the affluents’ desire for all things Oriental.

The focus and obsession with exotic cultures continued to provide a wealth of inspiration for jewels produced in the period between the world wars. In particular, the house of Cartier excelled at creating jewels and objects that appropriated themes, color palettes, ancient artifacts, and motifs emblematic of Persian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Russian cultures.

Perhaps it was the need to look elsewhere, a diversion to lands not ridden by war, that reignited this long held fascination in the modern western world. Interest in Chinese and Japanese inspired lacquered furniture, fashion, textiles, decorative arts and even wallpaper rose to new heights. Lacloche and other jewelry maisons including Boucheron, Mauboussin, Janesich, and Van Cleef & Arpels integrated Eastern themes into their collections.

The interest of East meets West had existed since 200 BCE, along the Silk Road. Over the next fifteen hundred years, this pathway, an intricate network of strategic posts on land and sea allowed the exchange of commerce. It also provided the diffusion and transference of religion and culture.

The pagoda; harkened to the mystical magic of China. These towers constructed of repetitive floors, sometime diminishing in size, were composed of wood, brick, or stone. Pagodas were long associated with Buddhism and were meant to house religious relics. Their original form was a hemispherical, domed monument or stupa found in India, that symbolized the sacred mountains. As Buddhism flourished and spread throughout Asia, over time the design of these towers took on new forms, melding with and adapting to local cultures and customs.  In Japan, pagodas are commonly constructed in wood and built with five stories, each floor representing an element – earth, water, wind, fire, and heaven. In China, the pagoda is typically of an elongated cylindrical form, narrow and multilevel. Regardless of their localized architectural appearance, these dramatic and unusual temples provided spiritual connections, and piqued imaginations the world over, making it a favorite motif.

Cartier explored and interpreted the pagoda form, producing both realistic and stylized miniature representations. The Chinese Temple Vanity Case (Cartier Collection), with black enamel and diamond Chinese pavilion central applique reflect the appreciation for mirror-black glazed porcelain and is decorated with diamond temple motif. Similarly, Cartier created several miniature diamond pagoda brooches paying homage and recognition to the variety of pagoda architecture. In a more expressive and highly stylized interpretation of the pagoda, Cartier created diamond earrings utilizing stacked roof and upturned corner elements and married them with the linear and geometric paradigm of the art deco.

“This fantasy achieved its highest point when a broken-hearted Parisian had a pagoda built in the hope of winning back his beloved’s heart. The magnificent gift did not succeed in keeping her but the building remains as evidence of the era’s fascination with the East.”

Estelle Nikles Van Osselt,

'Asia Imagined in the Baur and Cartier Collections’

These all-diamond pagoda inspired earrings had a wider silhouette, giving greater volume than those of the Belle Epoque era.  In many of these examples we see graduating tiers, upturned swirls, and pendant drops.  Various cuts of diamonds were utilized – circular, baguette, trapezoid, and pear-shapes and presented in highly flexible mountings.

Based on the number of Eastern themed jewels and objects created during these years, we are happily indebted to the designers and artisans for their ability to harness our unconscious desires and dreams and translate them into art.