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  • Cartier bracelets worn by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.

    Jewelry in the Movies: Cartier Bracelets

    In June last year, I wrote about “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s”, an exhibition I saw in New York City. Among the magnificent jewels on display was a pair of Cartier bracelets bought by Gloria Swanson in 1930 and now part of the maker’s collection. Those bracelets made an impression on me, and I noticed the star wearing them in a scene in Sunset Boulevard, which I recently viewed on television. Let me tell you about these jewels, the woman who wore them, and the movie.

    Cartier Bracelets

    PHOTO: Blechman /

    A myriad of movie stills and publicity photos, including this 1940s portrait, indicate that Gloria Swanson wore these stunning flexible bracelets often. Though made from the same materials – platinum, diamonds, and half-disks of rock crystal – the bracelets are actually slightly different in design. Unfortunately, Cartier would not grant me permission to publish a photo of the pair, but you can see them here on their website.

    According to Hollywood Jewels, the bracelets “were the inspiration of Jeanne Toussaint,” the creative and artistic director at Cartier for several decades, who had “an intuitive flair for fashion and precious jewelry”. She is credited with introducing materials such as rock crystal as components of the firm’s fine jewelry designs, to make them more affordable during the Depression. The book’s authors comment: “Swanson’s bangles are perhaps the finest example of a Toussaint jewel incorporating rock crystal”.

    Cartier’s website states that the bracelets are “not only part of the history of jewelry but also part of the history of movies” because Swanson wore them in at least two films: Perfect Understanding (1932) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Let me tell you about the latter.

    The Film

    Sunset Boulevard is the story of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent-movie star who is desperately trying to make a comeback with the assistance of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. On the run from creditors trying to repossess his car, Joe takes refuge in the driveway of a decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard. The door to the house is opened by Max (Erich von Stroheim), the butler. Mistaking Joe for the mortician who is bringing a coffin for Norma’s dead chimpanzee, Max immediately ushers the man upstairs to meet “madame”. When the faded film star learns that he is a screenwriter, she hires him to edit the lengthy script she is writing for her return to the big screen. Desperate for money, Joe accepts. By the next morning, his belongings have been moved from his apartment to a room over Norma’s garage, and she has settled all of his debts. Before long, Joe is relocated to a bedroom next to hers and becomes a kept man in her fantasy-filled life.

    PHOTO: Courtesy Everett Collection / Mary Evans

    The façade is largely orchestrated by Max, who is Norma’s former director and first husband. He projects her silent films in the living room for evening entertainment. He also writes fan letters under assumed names, so that Norma believes she has not been forgotten. After receiving a message that director Cecil B. DeMille called, Norma and Joe go to see him at Paramount Studios in her 1920s luxury Italian limousine driven by Max. Because of the director’s solicitous treatment, Norma believes she has made a deal with him to direct her comeback film. In fact, Max knows that the studio only wants to rent her Isotta-Fraschini (the limousine) for use in a movie.

    As Norma becomes more controlling and dependent on Joe, he finds respite away from the mansion, working on a script with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). They fall in love. Norma finds out, and Joe tries to leave her. Her jealousy and his revelations of the truths behind her fantasy life lead to a violent ending.

    Director Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, liberally sprinkles fact with fiction in this story of Hollywood and fleeting fame. In real life, Erich von Stroheim, who plays Max, was a director of silent films who once worked for Swanson’s film production company. Former silent-film stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner – whom Joe calls the Waxworks – come to the mansion to play bridge. Cecil B. DeMille, who plays himself, directed six of Swanson’s early films – roles that made her a star. Norma and Joe visit him on the set of Samson and Delilah, which DeMille was actually shooting at the time.

    PHOTO: Bettmann / Getty Images

    Norma wore this Edith Head-designed ensemble to see DeMille. Because the star believed that uneven lines made her appear taller (she was 4’11”), she asked for fur trim on only one cuff of the jacket. The original photo caption describes the outfit as “a lovely trio of White Ermine accessories” which include a black capelet “lined with fur to match the hat and cuff muff”. This photo correctly shows Norma wearing the Cartier bracelets with this ensemble, whereas the publicity shot of the three major players (shown above) is just that – it is not a movie still. In the film, she wore a stack of wide diamond bracelets with that gown and necklace. (I didn’t notice the discrepancy until after I paid the license fee for the photo.)

    If you think I’ve spoiled the movie for you by revealing too much of the plot, you needn’t worry – the opening scene reveals Joe’s fate, and the story is then told in flashback. Besides, with sumptuous sets by Hans Dreier and John Meehan, lavish costumes by Edith Head, and Franz Waxman’s Academy Award-winning score, in addition to the Academy Award-winning screenplay and Swanson’s brilliant performance, you won’t be disappointed.

    Gloria Swanson

    Hollywood’s top box-office magnet in the 1920s, Gloria Swanson had little in common with the character she portrayed in Sunset Boulevard. A fashion icon and savvy businesswoman, she was one of the first women in Hollywood who exerted control over her own career. Seeking more substantive roles, she turned down a studio contract in 1926 and started her own production company. She also was one of the few silent-film stars who successfully made the transition to talkies.

    Following Sunset Boulevard, Swanson’s first major movie role in 16 years, she toured 33 cities to promote the film. Dozens of television appearances and starring roles in two Broadway plays followed. She also designed clothes under the label Forever Young and started a cosmetics line, among other businesses. Never one to look back, she was admired for her youthfulness and vitality. Her obituary in The New York Times (April 5, 1983) includes this Swanson quote: “No, I’m not much for the past. I’m concerned about tomorrow and what’s going on between dreams”.

  • 1930s Art Deco necklace

    Jewelry in the Movies: A 1930s Art Deco Necklace

    I love mysteries almost as much as I love jewelry. In fact, I was a dedicated collector of this genre featuring female detectives before I devoted my collecting efforts solely to jewelry. So, imagine my delight when I went to see a new production of Murder on the Orient Express,…

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  • Paul Flato jewelry

    Paul Flato Jewelry in ‘Holiday’

    Before I even knew his name, I was a fan of Paul Flato jewelry. I was introduced to his talent when I first saw Holiday, a 1938 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. During that viewing many years ago, I remember wondering if the fabulous three-strand diamond necklace Hepburn…

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  • Flexible choker worn by Ann Sheridan in The Unfaithful

    Jewelry in the Movies: A 1940s Flexible Choker

    Movies produced in the 1930s-1940s rarely credited jewelry. In fact, in many cases, the names of the costume designers weren’t even disclosed on-screen. For this reason, I always look closely at what the female characters are wearing in these films, hoping to recognize a jewel. Last night while watching The…

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  • Movie jewelry by Harry Winston and worn by Ingrid Bergman in Notorious

    Jewelry in the Movies: Winston

    As we eagerly anticipate this year’s Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, many of us are as interested in what the stars will be wearing as who will win. And the dazzling jewels worn on the red carpet will get as much press as the gowns they adorn. So with…

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  • Kate Winslet would look stunning in these earrings (and so would you)

    In The Dressmaker, Kate Winslet’s Tilly Dunnage brings haute couture-inspired fashions in rich jewel tones and sumptuous fabrics to the women living in the dreary, dusty, rural Australian town of her childhood. The film is set in the early 1950s, when the hour-glass silhouette was in vogue: sloping shoulders, pointed…

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  • Jewelry in the Movies: Ruser

    Although vintage costume jewelry is the focus of my life and work, I am also a fan of beautiful fine jewelry created in the 1920s through the 1950s, the decades I specialize in. (Fine jewelry is jewelry created with precious metals – such as gold or platinum – and precious…

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  • Hollywood Glamour

    As a life-long lover of old black-and-white movies, especially those from the 1930s and 1940s (Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age), I enjoy seeing many of them over and over again. The first time, I’m obviously paying attention to the plot. But in subsequent viewings, I can focus on the jewelry and…

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  • The 1920s Roar Again with ‘The Great Gatsby’

    With jewels by Tiffany (based on designs from the company’s archives) and evening gowns by Miuccia Prada in collaboration with Catherine Martine (long-time costume and production designer, and wife of the director), Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby promises lots of eye-candy for lovers of the Art Deco style, which was…

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