You never hear directly from the owners of the private collection highlighted in A Vanity Affair: L’Art du Nécessaire ($150, Rizzoli), which only adds to the allure of what its pages contain. Featuring 160 examples of vintage vanity cases, powder compacts, pillboxes, cigarette cases, and multifunctional minaudières, the book includes 300 richly detailed photographs and text that references each item’s sociohistorical significance. Its effect is such that you find yourself wondering not only how the anonymous couple came to amass such a beguiling hoard of little treasures, but also about the fox-trotting Lady Mary Crawley/Daisy Buchanan types who might have wielded them at the Stork Club, The 43, or the Folies Bergère.
“Each vanity case is a marker of the taste and fashion of its time,” notes coauthor Lyne Kaddoura, an independent jewelry expert, adviser, and senior consultant with Christie’s. And the heyday for these novelties was without a doubt the Roaring ’20s, when “the vanity case moved out of the boudoir and began to take center stage at social events.” Among the cited examples are tiny triumphs of high jewelry imagination, ingenuity, and craftsmanship. Works by Van Cleef & Arpels (the originator of the multi-compartment minaudière design), Cartier, Boucheron, and Tiffany & Co. are abundantly represented.
“Some might think that the vanity cases are fashion accessories, others that they are technical marvels, pieces of history, or bejeweled art. They are actually all of these things,” Kaddoura further remarks.
The majority display the diverse calling cards of the Art Deco era: carved jade, enamel, black lacquer and onyx, bright-red coral, mother-of-pearl, chinoiserie, and Persian-Mughal motifs, along with sleek shapes and geometric fretwork expressed in gleaming gold.
The Art Deco style is so universally beloved and influential in the present day that the cases don’t seem quaint so much as spectacularly relevant—and definitely red carpet– worthy. But with accents of diamonds and a rainbow of gemstones, the featured examples are so exceptional that even the most lavishly decorated Judith Leiber clutch feels practically business casual in comparison.
Consider the intricate example pictured here, with its lid edged in rose-cut diamonds and calibré-cut sapphires. Dangling from an onyx and jade chain, the Chaumet design opens to reveal a mirror, two covered compartments, and a lipstick holder on one side, and a dance card holder, a pen and a cigarette compartment on the other.
Illustrious provenances are noted in the book, including personalities such as Rachel “Bunny” Mellon (a gold powder case dotted with emerald cabochons by Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co.), American tobacco heiress Doris Duke (a minaudière of blue enamel with an Indo-Persian floral motif from Cartier), and jewelry designer Suzanne Belperron (an enamel and gold pillbox, and a green enamel, coral, and diamond vanity case, both designed for her by Auguste Peyroula, a French silversmith famous for producing exquisite confections for Cartier and other maisons).
Collectors know that interesting provenance always adds to the cachet of an acquisition, but sometimes the object’s beauty is enough to seduce on its own, as is the Peyroula-designed case (opposite page). Another Cartier creation, it features the East Asian technique of laque burgauté (i.e., decorating lacquer with iridescent blue-green shell inlay) on the cover and base. The Chinese landscape scene is further adorned in mother-of-pearl and dark blue enamel, interspersed with turquoise, lapis lazuli, and diamonds. We recently saw a similar one on offer at 1stDibs.com— price on request, but it was breathtaking.
Which is to say that the owners of the collection showcased in A Vanity Affair have left some goodies out there for anyone likewise intrigued by the prospect of owning one of these precious objets d’art.
But it’s worth noting that the modern-day, newly minted equivalents take many forms: In recent years, contemporary jewelry designers like Silvia Furmanovich have elevated the minaudière to work-of-art status, casting the traditional shape in wood, decorated with her signature hand-painted marquetry or vintage Japanese silks, and 18-karat gold clasps of tourmaline and brown diamonds. Los Angeles–based designer Jacquie Aiche celebrates all aspects of the laid-back California lifestyle with a number of functional accessories crafted in the spirit of l’art du nécessaire, such as crossbody pouches made entirely of 14-karat gold mesh, gemstone potion bottles, and a black snakeskin “doob tube” with a tasseled zip closure. And in New York, Brent Neale has a jeweled “secret keeper” that doubles as a discreet hiding place for your stash.
Knowing that the 21st-century flapper may be carrying not just lipstick and powder, but also her iPhone, earbuds, vape pen, MetroCard, and possibly an emergency dose of clonazepam, can latterday minaudières, crafted in similarly luxurious-yet-functional fashion, become the current decade’s must-have accessory? We’re here for it. A chic grab-and-go option containing all your essentials could come in handy during the zombie apocalypse.