Research on Antiques & Collectibles


Yesterday’s useful Jewelry, now a desirable Collectible

Contributed by:

As the corseted and crinoline Victorian era gave way to the age of the flapper, the changing status of women revealed itself in curious ways. Among them was the unspoken right of liberated ladies to smoke and to powder their noses in public. Out would come the powder compact - often enameled, sometimes even bejeweled - from the beaded, velvet or silver-mesh bag.

In its myriad shapes, materials and designs, the compact was more than a fashionable accessory, more, even, than "the weapon of a fantastic coquetry," as Vogue magazine put it in a 1923 issue. It was often an object of impeccable period beauty, and that period, more often than not, was Art Deco. Today these little relics of social history are being snapped up in increasing numbers at flea markets, antiques shops and shows, and auction houses by a host of collectors, most of them women, who enjoy both their looks and their affordability. While the most lavish compacts - those made by such jewelers as Boucheron, Carrier and Tiffany – sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, the mass-produced compacts of the type used by most women from the 1920s right through the 1950s sell for much less. Many cost under $100 in smart shops. Others can literally be picked up for pennies, if one knows where to look: one collector bought a trio of never-used enameled compacts at a house sale for fifty cents each.

Early ancestors to the powder compact were the oriental ointment jar and the Egyptian kohl container, makeup of many kinds having always been a part of the aeons-long quest for self-improvement and beauty. Powder itself is one of the oldest known cosmetics. In ancient Rome women rubbed on chalk to whiten their faces, and even before then small cakes of white lead were used. The most immediate precursor to the compact was probably the round powder box used by fashionable European ladies - and sometimes men - in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not intended for use in public, these boxes were often made of gold, enamel and precious jewels.

Not until the first two decades of the twentieth century, when women began to enter the labor force in large numbers and to assert themselves in other ways, did face powder boldly come out of the boudoir and into public use by women of all classes. Manufacturers and advertisers played a major role in popularizing the novel, portable compact, as did the trend-setting stars of the silver screen. From there on in, powder boxes, compacts, necessaires and vanity cases - all variations on the same basic item - were as indispensable to a woman as an appointment book is today. There was even, in the mid-1930s, the elegant minaudi'ere, which was the French jeweler Louis Arpels's copyrighted supercompact: a vanity case with compartments for powder, rouge, lipstick, comb, sometimes even a watch. The early minaudi'eres were gold and silver; manufacturers soon began producing cheaper varieties in chromium-and nickel-plate.

While some Art Nouveau compacts come onto the market from time to time, the compacts generally available today are very much products of Art Deco, a style at once streamlined and floriated, refined and flamboyant. The style, which spanned roughly 1920 to 1940, took a highly experimental approach toward everything from silverware to skyscrapers. That compacts can be premier examples of Art Deco design is seen in the attention the little powder boxes are garnering among collectors and connoisseurs alike. They have been included in a number of museum exhibitions on the period.

The period compacts most often available today are of essentially two types. There are the elaborate, expensive objects made by jewelers, and the more affordable items made worldwide by metal-container companies, often for cosmetics firms such as Richard Hudnut, Coty, Helena Rubinstein and Houbigant, but sold directly to the customer as well. Too, there are compacts made of early forms of synthetic materials - Lucite and Bakelite, for example. And there are exotic compacts of leather, snakeskin and alligator as well.

The exquisite jewelers' compacts of precious metals and stones are the ones that are illustrated today in auction catalogues and displayed in the cases of fine shops. They can sell for upwards of $5,000. Though a few are unmarked, the name of the maker is usually visible in some discreet location. French jewelers abound, among them Cartier, Boucheron, Maubousson, Janesich, Chaumet; even Rene Lalique, the famed French glassmaker, contributed a striking design of stylized gold and white powder puffs on an orange background for the products of his cosmetics-maker friend Francois Coty. There are also elegant designs from American and other European firms, including Tiffany, Buccellati, Charlton and Company, and Black, Starr and Frost.

At the opposite end of the price and social scale were the mass-produced metal, wood and plastic compacts. Like the expensive variety, these compacts made ideal gifts, and most women had several, including an extra-special one for evening use. (One popular style featured a delicate chain attached to a finger ring to make it easier to hold while out on the dance floor, where a quick pat on the nose might be necessary).

The ordinary powder compact - the one tucked away in Grandmother's bureau drawer or discovered amidst the costume jewelry at a flea market - is generally made of brass or sterling or any one of a variety of alloys and often nickel-, chrome- or even gold-plated. It can be covered with varicolored enamels, synthetic stones, butterfly wing, needlepoint. It can be shaped like a square, heart, seashell, fan or even like a camera or a sailor's hat. The Art Deco designs on these cheaper, popular pieces are sometimes stunning, even inside, where the simplest of metals may be adorned with arresting interlaced zigzags or striking outlines of ladies very much a la mode. These compacts, if in very good condition - ideally, unused - can sell for over $100 today; originally they may have cost five or six dollars. There are also a host of whimsical souvenir or novelty compacts that depict vacation spots. World's Fairs and famous landmarks, such as the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower.

But what of all these compacts today? Who is buying them and what - if anything - are they doing with them? Alison Bradshaw, jewelry expert at PB Eighty-Four in New York, said the fine compacts and vanity cases consigned to Sotheby's are very salable. Sotheby's sales records show that the finest examples seem to exceed their presale estimates, and there can never be too many of them in an auction, whether it's a specialized Art Nouveau, Art Deco or fine jewelry sale, or one of objects of vertu. Some buyers purchase compacts to use them, of course, but many collect them for display as outstanding examples of Art Nouveau or Art Deco. These fine pieces can be arranged on a shelf or in a case with other period objects - pottery, glassware, cigarette cases and the like.

Nowadays, compacts are selling very well, even better when they can be converted into cigarette cases for king-size cigarettes (older cases cannot accommodate because they were meant to hold the short Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes). For this reason, some compacts have the mirrors and fittings are taken out, removing much of the weight and making room for cigarettes. Antique compacts are often also used as cases for keys, pills and change. The more available - and affordable - powder compact that is found at flea markets and at vintage clothing stores is also the more practical one to use. Other than as purely a collectible, very few use their compacts for the same purpose as the original owners.

Finding the right powder and puff, however, is often a difficult task. One collector of antique clothing said that she likes to carry compacts and even wear vintage makeup along with her fifty-year-old dresses to achieve a totally authentic period look. Caveat emptor, however, for the ingredients of the older cosmetics are not always up to present-day Food and Drug Administration standards and should be used with caution, if at all. In the long run, a compact collection may not contain a classic Cartier, Boucheron or Van Cleef & Arpels masterpiece, but the makers' and trade names etched onto the fittings of a cheaper metal piece - names like Zanadu, Rex Fifth Avenue, Volupte and Princess Pat - and the charming, classy or kitschy designs with which they are covered, are evocations of the same era. The workmanship and design of an enameled brass compact can be admired and appreciated just as much as a similar design in gold and lapis lazuli.

To identify marks on Silver, Silverplate, Jewelry or Metal Ware and find prices for antique Silver Jewelry, please visit our service.