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Collecting Guide: 20th-century objects of vertu

From elegant nécessaires  to exquisite compacts, 20th-century objects of vertu come in all shapes and sizes, styles and precious materials, as specialist Jill Waddell explains

Designed to be beautiful as well as functional, 20th-century objects of vertu range from cigarette carriers to vanity cases, and were made by the greatest jewellery houses for the most fashionable women of the day. They were works of art as well as accessories, and as such often much cherished — and well used — by their owners. 

Ahead of The Collector  sale in New York on 17 October, we survey the history of these exquisite creations, as well as the essential factors to consider for would-be collectors. 

The work of virtuosos

‘Objects of vertu (also spelled as virtu) are named as such for the virtuosity of their craftsmanship,’ explains Jill Waddell, a senior specialist in the Silver department at Christie’s. ‘They usually take the form of small boxes or containers made of precious metals such as silver or gold. The finest examples often feature enamel or are mounted with gems.’

A rare Art Deco enamel and multi-gem Tutti Frutti vanity case, by Cartier, signed Cartier, Paris, London, New York, No. 9513a, circa 1925. 9 x 5 x 1.5  cm, with French assay marks. Sold for CHF99,875 on 17 May 2001  at Christie’s in Geneva

A rare Art Deco enamel and multi-gem Tutti Frutti vanity case, by Cartier, signed Cartier, Paris, London, New York, No. 9513a, circa 1925. 9 x 5 x 1.5 cm, with French assay marks. Sold for CHF99,875 on 17 May 2001 at Christie’s in Geneva

The earliest examples of objects of vertu were made for men and used for snuff or presented as diplomatic gifts. ‘In the 18th century,’ explains Waddell, ‘we see more forms emerging such as the boites à mouches — little boxes with multiple compartments containing a little brush, a tiny pot of gum and a selection of small round tabs to mimic facial moles, so that the boxes’ owners could attach a beauty mark while on the go.’

Other examples include carnets de bal  (below) — dance cards, which came with a small pencil to make notes — and travelling sewing and needle cases. These were mostly made in France, Switzerland and Germany by specialist makers.

Designed to be seen and admired

In the early 20th century these objects evolved into the ultimate accessory for a night on the town, whether in Paris, London or New York. Produced by leading jewellery houses such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, objects of vertu were as integral to an evening’s outfit as a dress or a pair shoes, and represented the perfect marriage of form and function.

‘Salons such as Estée Lauder and Elizabeth Arden would fill them with your special formula of powder, lipstick and blush,’ explains Waddell. ‘These beautiful jewelled enamel cases, which are works of art in themselves, therefore had a very practical use.’

Such pieces were most definitely designed to be seen and admired. ‘Some have tassels and wristbands, so they were not made for hiding in an evening bag,’ says the specialist, ‘but were to be displayed prominently, like additional pieces of jewellery.’

Adaptable to contemporary use

With their elegant design and exquisite detailing, some of the smaller, simpler objects can be used as accessories today. ‘Certainly a little compact or a pill box can be tucked into a bag, or cigarette cases can be used for business cards,’ suggests the specialist. ‘I have yet to find one that fits an iPhone, unfortunately!’

Glamorous, romantic, personal

There is no doubt that these objects were well-loved. ‘I think the whole idea of carrying this beautiful oversized jewelled artwork and it serving a practical function is exceedingly glamorous,’ says Waddell. ‘It’s the most romantic way to step out on the town.’

An 18k gold, silver and diamond case, Mark of Cartier, Paris, first half 20th century. 3  in (7.6  cm) long. Estimate $6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in THE COLLECTOR 19th Century Furniture, Sculpture, Works of Art, Ceramics & Silver on 17 October 2017  at Christie’s in New York

An 18k gold, silver and diamond case, Mark of Cartier, Paris, first half 20th century. 3 in (7.6 cm) long. Estimate: $6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in THE COLLECTOR: 19th Century Furniture, Sculpture, Works of Art, Ceramics & Silver on 17 October 2017 at Christie’s in New York

The appeal that they held for so many women can be seen in the signs of wear. ‘These are things that have been used and loved,’ the specialist explains. ‘And as well as the aesthetic appeal, they also feel so nice to carry, and have a good weight to them.’

This is something to consider when collecting. An object that carries the mark of a great maker such as Van Cleef & Arpels or Cartier will be sought after, but it is important to remember that these are very personal objects and, says Waddell, ‘you should make sure that it’s something that speaks to you’.

A variety of styles, from Art Deco to Chinoiserie

The design of these objects tended to reflect the style of the times, from Art Deco to elements of Chinoiserie: ‘They were made in numerous styles, materials and colour combinations. We tend to see a lot of strong geometric themes, often set with sapphires and diamonds in beautifully shaped mounts, with a focus on form and patterns.’

An Art Deco lacquer, multi-gem and silver table box, by Cartier. Sold for $168,750 on 20 June 2017  at Christie’s in New York

An Art Deco lacquer, multi-gem and silver table box, by Cartier. Sold for $168,750 on 20 June 2017 at Christie’s in New York

‘The sky’s the limit’ when it comes to value

As well as being aesthetically pleasing these objects can also achieve strong prices, particularly if they are of a rare design and in good condition. One ‘really fabulous’ piece was a 1930s Van Cleef Art Deco enamel and sapphire matching vanity case, which was estimated at $8,000-12,000 and sold for $22,500 in April 2017. Some of the oldest gold boxes have sold for seven-figure sums, but for 20th-century examples that are beautifully made from extremely rare materials, ‘the sky’s the limit’, explains Waddell.

Another factor that can add value is provenance. ‘Always look out for an engraved inscription,’ says the specialist. ‘This can tell us who the object was originally presented to, and also indicate any related documentation.’

Why condition counts above all

‘As a collector the number one thing I would be looking at is condition,’ Waddell advises. ‘Many pieces have internal compartments, and it is a good idea to make sure that all the hinges are flush and that the case closes. If you are going to use a piece and have it filled with your favourite powder, the last thing you want is for it to break apart in your bag.’

If the piece is gem-mounted, a seasoned collector will always check it has all of its stones, ideally original.

Enamel repairs, in particular, can be tricky to spot. ‘If it has been repaired it looks a little cloudy or a little discoloured compared to the original,’ advises Waddell. ‘You can often feel the difference if you slide a pin across it because it would catch a little on the new enamel. And if the object is in delicate condition, remember that you shouldn’t handle it very often.’

Where to see fine examples

In London, the leading gold box collections can be found at the Wallace Collection and at the V&A, which houses the Gilbert Collection. In New York, interested collectors should visit The Met, which houses the Wrightsman Collection.

Jill Waddell also recommends the catalogue from the recent exhibition of Jazz Age objects of vertu belonging to the Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan held at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. ‘The catalogue is stunning, and essential reading for anyone interested in this category.’