Clasps, Clocks, and All that Jazz

Running concurrently with the blockbuster “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” at the Cooper Hewitt Museum is an exquisite, intimate, and personal exhibit “Jeweled Splendors of the Art Deco Era: The Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection.” Installed in the Carnegie Mansion’s Teak Room, the show features over 100 luxury cigarette and vanity cases, compacts, nécessaires, and clocks, all gifts from the Prince (1933–2003) to his wife of 31 years, Catherine (b. 1938). Produced from 1910 to 1938 by the premier jewelry houses of Europe and America, including Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Lacloche Frères, Boucheron, and Bulgari, this collection exemplifies the outstanding craftsmanship of the era and highlights the connection of East and West, both in the objects and in the life of Sadruddin Aga Khan, “a citizen of the world.”

Deeply influenced by his father, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan, Prince Sadruddin devoted much of his life to public service, including almost 40 years at the United Nations. Although he was raised in Europe, his father insisted he learn the Koran and understand the basic traditions and beliefs of Islam without imposing any particular view.  He travelled with his father to Muslim countries and was fluent in French, English, German, and Italian and spoke some Persian and Arabic.

After attending Le Rosy in Switzerland, he entered Harvard University and lived in Eliot House with Paul Matisse, (grandson of Henri Matisse), Stephen Joyce, (grandson of James Joyce), and George Plimpton. An editor of the Harvard Lampoon, he became the founding publisher of the Paris Review. When at the Review, he enticed his father to establish the “Aga Khan Prize for Fiction,” which was awarded to the best short story of the year from 1956 to 2004.

Graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1954, he spent three years at the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies and joined UNESCO in 1958, where he became Executive Secretary to the its International Action Committee for the Preservation of Nubia in 1961, saving ancient Egyptian temples as Abu Simbel. In 1959, he was the Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He became the youngest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1966, a position he held for 12 years. He held numerous senior positions at the U.N. and he won the vote to become U.N. Secretary General in 1981, but was blocked by a veto by the Soviet Union. He continued in the field of humanitarian action all his life and was decorated and recognized by the United Nations, the Vatican and the countries of Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Poland, and France. Returning to his home in Geneva, he established the Bellerive Foundation to address ecological issues and to “promote environmental protection, natural resource conservation and the safeguarding of life in all its forms.”

He and his wife, Catherine, shared interest in collecting rare books with beautiful bindings but one Christmas Eve he gave her a magnificent Cartier jeweled box. Thus began this amazing collection, now on view, many bearing touching inscriptions indicating many years of a happy marriage. The collection grew to include exquisite table clocks, many from Cartier’s exclusive maker, Maurice Couet (1885-1963). Couet created the “mystery clock,” a new technology system that attached rotating disks to the hands, connected the disks to the gears in the frame of the case, with the the movement often in the housed in the base.  Couet added full-time lapidaries and enamelists who enabled the workshop to make other casework items, vanities, and cigarette cases, comparable in quality to his clockworks.

The quantity of compacts, cigarette cases, and accessories produced during this period announces the liberation of women after World War I. When millions of men were called to war, women had taken their place in factories, hospitals and offices. They travelled alone freely and wore clothes that allowed for unrestricted movement, notably designed by Paul Poiret (1879-1944) and Coco Chanel (1883-1971). The use of make up increased and was no longer worn only by “loose” women; indeed, the toilette of 18th century moved out of the boudoir and into the smoky nightclubs of post-war Europe and America.

To quote Harvard Professor Stuart Cary Welch’s statement about Prince Sadruddin’s Islamic art collection, “few collections are as appropriate to their owners.” Indeed, the same conclusion could be drawn from this collection for the loving devotion and exquisite taste exemplified by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan’s gifts to his wife.