Weighing in at 7.7 pounds and measuring a generous 10.8 x 1.7 x 13.6 inches, “A Vanity Affair: L’art du nécessaire” is a weighty and elegant, 336-page encyclopedia of antique luxury vanity cases made of precious metals, diamonds, colored gemstones and other fine materials. Slip-cased and replete with gilded page edges, this super-chic volume chronicles artistically accomplished vanity cases from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Published in 2019 by Rizzoli, this historically important and comprehensive survey is intriguing to study given that tiny “It” bags and minaudières from global luxury brands are selling around the world these days, some for thousands of dollars a design.
For those who may be unaware of what vanity cases are, and why they were once so popular, these cases, also referred to as “nécessaires”, were primarily made in Paris, the leading fashion and jewelry center of the day, by Place Vendôme jewelers like Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels and Boucheron. Other great jewelers like Paris-based Jean Trotain, Lacloche Frères and Fabergé, plus U.S. jewelers like Tiffany & Co. and Black Starr & Frost also made highly intricate and gem-studded vanity cases.
Vanity cases were precursors to the It Bag. Everyone from established to aspiring socialites, society matrons, courtesans and flappers desired exquisitely gem-encrusted, tiny, durable and covetable cases for carrying essentials while they were out on the town. Vanity cases often held such necessities as money, keys and theater tickets, as well as cosmetics like lipstick, rouge and a mirrored powder compact. If the lady smoked, a few cigarettes and a lighter may also have been packed inside.
A vanity case is smaller and thinner than a minaudière, which was invented in the 1930s and was large enough to hold eyeglasses or opera glasses. The ornate and technically sublime vanity cases within the pages of this book are made of gleaming or highly textured precious metals, including platinum and gold. Variously inlaid with lacquer, gemstones, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl, jade, or vibrantly colored enamel, these cases took hundreds of hours of diligent artistry to complete.
Because precious metal boxes offer relatively larger surface to design and decorate than most jewels, the cases inside these gilded pages display virtuosic, labor-intensive and ultra-precious artisanship, the likes of which is almost unknown today, outside of a few European and Russian ateliers. Artfully hidden hinges and layered compartments create cases that look like jeweled dreams, while working like charms.
Apart from the mesmerizing images in this book, the A”A Vanity Affair” features incisive editing by independent jewelry specialist, advisor and Senior Consultant with Christie’s Lyne Kaddoura. While all the texts provide superb insight into the subject, the preface is by François Curiel, who happens to be Chairman of Christie’s Europe and the head of Christie’s global Luxury division. The colorful introduction is penned by David Snowdon, the Hon. Chairman for Christie’s in Europe, the Middle East, Russia and India.
Page after page, “A Vanity Affair” sparkles with contributions by Pierre Rainero, who is the highly adept Image, Style and Heritage Director of Cartier, plus Catherine Cariou, the former heritage director at Van Cleef & Arpels. And then there’s Laurence Mouillefarine ‘s writing, along with smart pieces by author, art historian and jewelry exhibition curator Diana Scarisbrick. Other contributions come from Vivienne Becker, the London-based jewelry historian, journalist, and author of more than twenty books on the history of jewelry design and contemporary jewelry.