It's film festival season again, and Hollywood starlets are sparkling all the more brightly as they mince down the red carpet toting gem-studded accessories. What these celebrities may not know, however, is that their tiny, precious purses - often too small to hold anything bulkier than a lipstick and possibly a phone - actually pay tribute to the early days of cinema in the 1920s and 1930s, when a unique vanity case was the A-list accoutrement, whether at the side of social luminaries, fashion leaders or stars of the stage and screen.

"The fabulous minaudières were probably the most refined and imaginative of all aesthetic products of the age of art deco," says arts journalist and editor Meredith Etherington-Smith. "[They reflect], in miniature, all the major art and fashion trends of the time, and [provide] a fascinating glimpse into the luxurious golden era of human beauty and adornment. They are the triumph of the jewellers' art - stunningly decorative on the outside and with interiors that were miniature feats of engineering."

Etherington-Smith was tasked with curating the summer exhibition "Ultra Vanities - Bejewelled Make-up Boxes from an Age of Glamour" at London's Goldsmith's Hall, for which she wrote an associated book, Ultra Vanities - Minaudières, Nécessaires and Compacts. The exhibition runs from May 31 to July 20, and the principal first floor rooms of the Goldsmith's Hall will be transformed into an elegant early 20th-century Parisian salon. Guerlain's signature Shalimar perfume will add fragrance to the space.

The showcase will bring a collector's treasures out into the light, featuring more than 200 gold, silver and platinum examples from one collection of minaudières and nécessaires (or compacts as they are sometimes referred to) - finely wrought, jewelled and enamelled boxes that were all the rage of the well-heeled from the 1920s through the 1950s. There will also be a few single compacts, lipstick holders and gold lamé evening bags and pouches on view.

The private male Asian collector who owns the items partly attributes his decades-long attraction to what they encapsulate in terms of history and social context.

The first, smaller nécessaires (or "essential accessories"), which predate the rectangular minaudière, are decorative cylindrical receptacles for everyday grooming items. They are sometimes referred to as étuis and were first used in the 1720s and often carried on a chatelaine - a hook from which many chains were hung with personal items, worn at the waist or pinned to dresses or clothing.

The minaudière, on the other hand, was first invented and patented in 1933 by Van Cleef & Arpels, and the story goes that the first model was designed for an American railway magnate's wife, Florence Gould, who had a habit of transporting her make-up, comb, cigarettes and lighter in a box.

"At the time, [the minaudière] was the improvement of the nécessaire that already existed in the 1920s and whose interior was composed of two compartments, one for powder and the other for pills, coins and the like," says Catherine Cariou, heritage director of Van Cleef & Arpels. "The minaudières brought many technical advances to [this] vanity case." In the following decades, Americans displayed a particular fondness for the concept's streamlined chic. The minaudières also prove that looks can be deceiving - these small-scale marvels contain all manners of small accessories. Cariou elaborates: "The modern woman had started using make-up during the war and needed a small, unobtrusive bag to capture infinite femininity and all the must-have accessories in one minuscule object.

"The minaudière contains all the necessary items in a compact and artistic form for a lady's use during the afternoon or evening. It opens to reveal a powder case, a watch [always retractable, because a woman didn't need to know the time], a dance card, some visit cards, a cigarette holder, glasses, a pill box, a lipstick, a comb, a pencil, a lighter, a cigarette case and other cases to arrange money, a handkerchief … The inside of the lid conceals a mirror so that the owner can check on her hairstyle and her make-up by discreetly opening it. Everything is in its place - there is no waste of space."

Such vanity "bags" were created by all the major jewellery houses - including Cartier, Tiffany & Co, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, Boucheron, Chaumet, Asprey and Graff - as accessories for their fashion clientele, with status as paramount; conceived to rest on cocktail bars and grand dining tables, where they were to be coveted and admired for their preciousness and ingenuity. The materials used also presented infinite possibilities: precious stones, jade, mother of pearl, lacquer, tortoise-shell - along with textures and colour palette.

Crafting these stunning accessories, however, was no easy task. "Their production was so exacting and involved so many different skilled craftsmen," Etherington-Smith explains. "The process was extremely delicate, and each of the successive stages had to be absolutely perfect in order to move onto the next stage - one mistake meant the piece had to be abandoned and started again from the beginning. The intricate decorating required techniques such as chasing, engraving, enameling, stone-setting and the incorporation of lacquer."

The exhibition marks the peak of these bags' desirability, but modern interpretations from the 1980s and 1990s are growing in popularity in the vintage market. Van Cleef & Arpels still make two to three minaudières per year as special orders, and the jeweller plans to release more of these exquisite products in the future. It can be a lucrative business, too - these exquisite boxes come up at auctions from time to time, and the prices they fetch depend on size, number of gemstones, the collectability of the maker, provenance and condition. Original 1930s gem-set models, for example, can generate prices from US$3,000 to US$30,000 at auction, but at Christie's Important Jewels sale in London in June 2011, an art deco enamel, jade and diamond vanity case by Van Cleef & Arpels, circa 1925, exceeded all expectations when it sold for £55,250 (HK$656,640), having been estimated at £10,000 to £12,000.

Some, however, would argue that one cannot put a price on such an exquisite creation. As Cariou says, "the minaudière is among the signatures of the maison; it requires a very unique and specific savoir-faire. [It] is an extraordinary treasure of ingenuity, inventiveness and a technical prowess".

Melissa Pearce



The value of a minaudière is maximised when its components are as intact as possible. If it came with a slipcase, its market worth would increase.

Minaudières produced during and just after the war years, when precious metals were in short supply, were often made of the pewter alloy styptor, and are consequently worth less.

On June 5, Christie’s jewellery sale in London will be offering a selection of jewelled vanity cases, including an art deco gem-set and enamel piece by Cartier, circa 1930. The rectangular case has an Indo-Persian design, depicting exotic birds, tigers, gazelles and elephants among a scrolling floral and foliate ground. It features cream enamel detailing, a jadeite jade bar thumb piece with central rose-cut diamond line detail, and twin ruby cabochon accents. Its estimate price is £3,000 to £4,000 (HK$35,630 to $47,500). If battling it out at an auction house doesn’t appeal, Clara Kasavina is a New York-based contemporary handbag and accessories designer who is smitten with minaudières and vintage clutches, and counts Rihanna as a fan.