As the V&A unveils its new jewellery gallery, Carola Long delves into its glittering archives, and goes behind the scenes at Cartier’s workshop

It is impossible not to gaze at Cartier's diamond-adorned Manchester tiara from 1903, and not want to reach out and stroke its brilliant, garlanded curves and swirls. Under the watchful eye of Richard Edgcumbe, jewellery curator at London's Victorian & Albert museum, who is showing me round their collection, however, this is strictly verboten without wearing sterile gloves. These are a far cry from the silk versions that its original owner, the Duchess of Manchester, might have worn. "No, these aren't very glamorous," Richard agrees, snapping a glove, "but jewellery isn't just about glamour, it's a declaration of love and loss, of faith and hope."

It's also about history, and the celebrated Cartier pieces that are a highlight of the V&A's new jewellery gallery – which spans around 4,000 years – are twinkling with it. In addition to the Manchester tiara, a diamond and rock crystal floral brooch and a Cartier diamond tiara from 1913 with synthetic rubies made to look like cabochon (unfaceted) stones will also be displayed. The development of synthetic jewels at the turn of the century was considered such a technological triumph that there was no stigma in setting them alongside real stones. The most famous piece of Cartier jewellery in the exhibition, however, is the Art Deco Tutti Frutti bandeau in ruby, sapphire, emerald and diamonds, bought from Cartier London in 1928 by Lady Mountbatten. After buying the piece, she returned with the bracelet to Malta where her husband was stationed, went to Africa and back to Gibraltar, and then took a car and a "terribly bumpy" train to Barcelona. There, staying in the Ritz, she gave birth to her second daughter to the strains of a band provided by King Alphonso of Spain. A studio portrait to celebrate the birth shows her wearing the bandeau divided into two bracelets – many Cartier pieces have a multifunctional element.

Cartier's Tutti Frutti style was inspired by Jacques Cartier's fascination with the rich traditional jewellery of the subcontinent and it found a captive audience in fashionable Westerners intoxicated by Indian style. The Cartier brothers travelled across India, and met Maharajahs who entrusted the jeweller to reset their gold parures into the more fashionable platinum. The classic Cartier Tutti Frutti style is characterised by sapphires, rubies, diamonds and emeralds carved with flowers, fruit and palm-leaf motifs, and mounted in flamboyant, floral compositions, and is remarkable not only for its arresting, irregular harmony, but also for how current it still looks. This is partly because many famous jewellery houses are capitalising on their heritage, producing archive-inspired pieces. Cartier's current Inde Mysterieuse collection, which features engraved stones, cut and ribbed in the Jaipur style, has been inspired by the brand's love affair with India. Similarly, the combination of different coloured stones, the "multigem" look, is enjoying a renaissance.

Just as some of Cartier's signature motifs endure, decades after they were first introduced, so many of their craft techniques are still being practised. A rare glimpse inside their workshop in Paris reveals the astonishing amount of work that goes into a single piece. "The tools we use nowadays are the same as we used centuries ago, with the exception of the electric lamp," says Xavier Gargat, the director at the workshop. "The settings haven't changed but the diamonds are cut in a different way now. They have worked out how best to cut the stones to catch the light, and really sparkle."

Eighty per cent of the pieces made in the workshop above the marble-fronted boutique in smart Rue de la Paix are unique, and each one

takes thousands of hours' work. The prices (which start at around £30,000 for "high" jewellery) begin to make sense when you realise how much concentration and expertise goes into a single piece. Consider, also, that it takes 10 to 15 years for apprentices to complete their training. Anyone who thinks that making jewellery involves whimsically combining precious metals and gems would find themselves sharply corrected. As Gargat says, "some people think that it's free artistic work, but it's actually very disciplined ... everything has to have the Cartier look and feel."

The interconnecting rooms in the workshop consist of wooden benches with around 40 craftsmen sitting facing each other on either side. Crescent shapes have been cut out of the bench where each craftsman sits, and there is a sheet of fabric suspended under this inset to catch any stray diamonds. At one bench a craftsman is making a white gold and diamond studded panther – one of Cartier's signature animals, along with crocodiles, which were immortalised by the Mexican actress Maria Felix. Felix came into their shop with a baby crocodile and asked for a piece inspired by the animal, adding that the craftsman should hurry up, because it was growing and she wanted it captured that size. This and other figurative pieces are made using a wax mould, marked where the diamonds will be inserted into the precious metal version. It takes 15 minutes to make each mark on the panther mould, two weeks to draw all the stones on the wax, and 400 hours to make a complete wax mould.

A similar sensitivity was needed to display the historic Cartier, and other pieces, in the new V&A gallery. When the curators were looking for an architect, they asked potential candidates to experiment with shining a torch on to the collection to best enhance the lustre and detail of the pieces. Eva Jiricna was chosen to design the space, and her subdued lighting pierced by intense beams of light provides an intimate setting in which to appreciate the collection's beauty. Among the 3,500 jewels, most of which focus on the story of European jewellery during the past 800 years, there are diamond ornaments commissioned by Catherine the Great, jewels worn in the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and enamelled rings mourning the loss of children. As Edgcumbe reflects, "Jewels are a potent link with the past, a celebration of art and craftsmanship, and an embodiment of deep human emotions."

The William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery opens at the V&A, London SW7, on 24 May. For more information: 020-7942 2000 /