The other day I realised a long-cherished ambition and held Jean Cocteau’s academician’s sword. I was at the offices of the Cartier Collection, looking at items of beauty with Pascale Lepeu and Bernhard Berger, who have the best job imaginable. Together they are custodians of an unrivalled collection of objects made by Cartier. I had admired the mystery clocks, tried on the “Fred Astaire” Tank Cintrée, fired up both minute-repeater and quarter-repeater clocks and considered taking up cigarette smoking after looking at some amazing cigarette boxes, when I casually asked if they happened to have Jean Cocteau’s academician’s sword knocking about.
Should there be such an individual as a close reader of Swellboy, he or she will know that this is one of my favourite objects of all time, and the chance to pull it from its scabbard and practise a few thrusts and parries was simply too good to pass up.
The French have a knack for dressing things up and lexicography is no exception. In England we have the Oxford English Dictionary, in France they have the pageantry and flummery of nearly four centuries of dressing up and waving swords about. L’Institut de France consists of five learned societies or académies, the most famous of which is the Académie Française, whose role is the protection of the French language. The Académie was instituted by Cardinal Richelieu, recognised by Louis XIII in 1635, and usually numbers 40 members (les immortels), who are elected for life. New members can only be admitted to occupy one of its chairs, or fauteuils, when the incumbent dies.
The weight of history rests quite literally on the shoulders of those who enter this institution in the form of l’habit vert, a tailcoat adorned with rich embroidery, which covers the lapels, edges and trouser seams like a particularly virulent form of gilded lichen. The defining accessory is the academician’s épée worn by each member, designed in a manner that reflects their personality. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but you can cram a lot more in the way of visual references onto a sword
Cocteau’s handguard traces the profile of Orpheus, his muse. Just in case you missed that allusion, Orpheus’ lyre, adorned with a 2.84ct emerald supplied by Coco Chanel and two rubies from Francine Weisweiller (who also coughed up a few diamonds), is reproduced in ivory on the pommel. The scabbard carries Cocteau’s signature/logo: his initials with a star. The star appears again in rubies and diamonds on the crossguard on an ivory disc. The crossguard itself, in the shape of a stick of charcoal, references Cocteau’s drawing. The scabbard has a pattern evoking the grille surrounding the gardens of the Palais-Royal, where he lived, while at the tip of the scabbard, a hand clutching an ivory ball (one begins to think that Cocteau was a closet elephant hunter) refers to the snowball in Les Enfants Terribles. It is as if a Christmas tree and a rapier have had a passionate affair, of which this is the love child.
I would go as far as taking up fencing if it meant I could use a sword made by Cartier, whereas in France all you need is a passionate interest in the correct use of language.