art deco vanity case

The case for vanity | art deco jewels | sister act

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

An art deco vanity case collection in memory of Freddie Mercury dazzles at the V&A Museum’s new jewellery gallery


It was what the Italians might call a colpo d’amore – a gust of love, something that takes your breath away.

For Kashmira Bulsara, a frosted rock crystal card case depicting a Japanese weeping willow applied in black enamel and rose-cut diamonds would trigger a love affair with Art Deco vanity cases.

Bulsara bought the Lacloche piece, made in Paris between 1920 and 1925, from London jewellery retailer Peter Edwards, known for his expertise in 20th-century jewels. Over two decades Edwards would help her shape a collection of 49 Art Deco vanity cases that earlier this year became a key attraction of the new William and Judith Bollinger Gallery, dedicated to sumptuous jewellery, at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

A glass spiral staircase links the ground with the mezzanine where visitors come face to face with this exquisite 1920s art form. “We’ve dubbed it ‘The Stairway to Heaven’,” declared Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, on opening night.

Bulsara has promised the collection to the museum in memory of her late brother, Queen’s Freddie Mercury, who loved art and beautiful things and was particularly fascinated by Japanese beauty. Mercury was artistic as well as musical, studying art at Isleworth Polytechnic in West London and graphic art and design at Ealing Art College. He designed heraldic arms for Queen and was involved in the design of several of the band’s album covers.

Edwards collaborated on a book about the collection and the magic of its time with gemologist and jewellery historian Sarah Hue-Williams, author of Christie’s Guide to Jewellery and co-author of Hidden Gems: Jewellery Stories from the Saleroom. Called A Kind of Magic: Art Deco Vanity Cases (Unicorn Press, $80), it is an exploration of the aesthetic blueprint that Art Deco turned out to be.

As Hue-Williams told Excess All Areas, “Art Deco had a lexicon all its own, and was truly revolutionary: the colours, designs, motifs and materials used were all so inventive and avant-garde. These were happily matched by an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and skill, which jewellers have struggled to replicate since.”

With the Roaring Twenties came cocktail parties, jazz clubs, Hollywood films, ocean liners, and the motor car. What women wore would change dramatically and jewellers were quick off the mark, creating bandeaus, sautoirs and the vanity case.

It was jewellery, says Hue-Williams, that captured the glamour, speed, excitement and optimism of the 1920s. “Women revelled in new freedom, new fashions and entirely new behaviour,” she says. “Makeup became an increasingly essential part of their look, partly inspired by Hollywood screen icons. No longer considered vulgar and best kept to the privacy of the boudoir, the very act of applying powder and lipstick became part of a public ritual of seduction.

“Clearly this required an entirely new accessory, and so the nécessaire – or vanity case – was born, designed to carry everything a fashionable woman on the move would need.”

Documenting Bulsara’s collection gave Hue-Williams a new appreciation of the craftsmanship.

“These vanity cases are masterpieces, in miniature. I love their sculptural look and feel, that they have a practical purpose, and the weight of them in the hand. Many were cylindrical, the convex shape allowing more to be fitted into the interior, as well as to rest comfortably while being carried.”

Here Hue-Williams lists her favourites and the reasons they are significant…


art deco vanity case

Card case with a frosted rock crystal body, lapis lazuli panels to top and base, a Japanese weeping willow applied in black enamel, rose-cut diamonds and a shou sign. Lacloche, Paris, c 1920-5

“The use of rock crystal is an Art Deco trademark. This is where it all started, where a collector ‘caught the bug’ and decided to build a collection in memory of her brother. Kash felt Freddie would have loved the cases as much as she does.”


art deco vanity case

Double-sided case with onyx body, makeup and cigarette compartments, ivory panel and pencil. Marzo, Paris, c 1920-3

“This example shouts ‘sophistication’: it is so simple, yet so stylish, and a triumph of lapidary technique, with the body made from onyx rather than enamel or lacquer. Despite being only about 12cm in length, these cases were heavier than they looked because of the intricacies of the compartments and gadgetry.”


art deco vanity case

Double-sided case with makeup and cigarette compartments, reverse and enamel borders decorated with geometric “air” pattern and a central panel of mother-of-pearl with a chinoiserie theme. Ostertag, Paris, c 1925

“Exoticism and the whole notion of travel was an obsession in this era with the advent of aeroplanes and cars. Part of the attraction was the speed these new machines injected into life, but it was also about the destination, not just the journey. There was an insatiable appetite for anything foreign. This case combines the enameller’s art with an inlaid scene using mother-of-pearl to depict a distinctive chinoiserie landscape.”


art deco vanity case

Miniature vanity case with black and cream decoration and compartments for rouge and lipstick and a hidden gold key revealed by opening a small recessed catch. Cartier, New York, 1930.

“Even the smartest of all door keys was given the Art Deco treatment. This one was made by Cartier New York, rather than London or Paris, and belonged to Consuelo Vanderbilt Earl, born in 1903 to a life of luxury – mansions, yachts and frequent jaunts to Europe. The mechanics are ingenious! The black, cream and gold decoration is so chic, but I also love the diamond-edged central motif using flowers for a touch of femininity.”


jewel vanity cases V&A

Vanity case with pale blue enamel decoration on the centre panel, fluted lapis lazuli and jade to the sides with baguette-cut diamond highlights. Van Cleef & Arpels, c 1925

“Several of the cases are a rage of fabulous colour, created using all sorts of materials to build the chromatic effect. Everything about this is Art Deco: the colour combination of blue and green, the use of exotic, non-European materials, and diamonds cut in the ubiquitous shape of the 1920s, the baguette.


art deco cigarette case

Cigarette case with black enamel strip decoration to the front and back, red enamel on the sides, and a central plaque depicting a cockerel in mother-of-pearl and hardstone by Vladimir Makowsky. Black, Starr & Frost, c 1925-30.

“I’m always struck by how innovative the Art Deco era was with its combinations of colour, material and technique. This intricate design was brought to life by Vladimir Makowsky, a Russian emigré artist living in Paris in the 1920s whose signature was inlaid lacquer and gemstone work. He worked for several of the high jewellery houses during this same period, such was the demand and level of specialist craftsmanship required for this work.”


art deco enamelled vanity case

Vanity case with multi-coloured enamels on an ivory enamel background with rose-cut diamond highlights. Unknown retailer, Strauss Allard & Meyer workshop, c 1925.

“If I had to choose a favourite? This Indo Persian-inspired case with its colourful enamelling, strong lines, exotic motifs and intricate craftsmanship. It sums up the glitz and the glamour of the era, its palpable energy and feverish movement. It was contagious, and you can see and feel it in these vanity cases.”


portrait shot

Sarah Hue-Williams, co-author of A Kind of Magic:: Art Deco Vanity Cases

Vanity case photos: Andy Smart. Courtesy Peter Edwards. B&W images courtesy Unicorn Press.

The vanity cases in the V&A exhibition are a loan and promised gift from Kashmira Bulsara in memory of her brother, Freddie Mercury. 

An edited version of this story appeared in Signature Luxury Travel & Style, Spring 2019 edition


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