Women's Fashion | Past Masters

Minaudières

The little box bag invented in the 1930s has myriad incarnations to have and to hold, says Avril Groom.

October 31 2011
Avril Groom

The Duchess of Cambridge’s attachment to her Anya Hindmarch stingray box bag has thrown into sharp focus a little accessory that has been quietly gaining ascendancy in the fashion firmament. Like many things, the modern hard-sided evening box bag is bigger than its ancestors but it is, nonetheless, the direct descendant of the minaudière – a rectangular objet d’art in precious metal, often gem-set, that was invented (and the name patented) by Van Cleef & Arpels at the start of the 1930s.

The story goes that the first one was designed for an American railway magnate’s wife, Florence Gould, who previously carried her make-up, comb, cigarettes and lighter in a box. The minaudière soon became a vogue, and similar items appeared from the likes of Boucheron, Cartier, Dunhill and Asprey, the latter having been specially designed by Van Cleef.

The minaudière was designed with metal compartments and included a lipstick holder, compact, mirror, tortoiseshell comb, perhaps a silk purse or even a watch. It also often came in a silk or suede carrying bag, and finding examples with all the extras intact is the game for collectors. “The carrying bag may be shabby or the case itself dented,” says Christie’s London head of jewellery Keith Penton. “Accessories such as the comb can be replaced, but integral damage is more detrimental to value.”

Original 1930s gem-set examples can fetch from £2,000 to £20,000, and they are often bought, says Penton, by those who also collect compacts and pillboxes – frequently men – as collectable objects rather than for use as fashion items. Apart from the diamond-set classics, however, minaudières are relatively reasonable. “During and just after the war years, when precious metals were in short supply, they were often made of the pewter alloy styptor, but trimmed with gold and still set with small gems, and they typically fetch around £3,000.” In New York last year, Christie’s sold a Van Cleef styptor and ruby model for $5,000.

California-based philanthropist and collector Suzanne Tennenbaum owns a 1940s example in this style, and she uses it too. “I collect estate jewellery, which I love to wear because that is the point of it,” she says. “I already owned a Van Cleef nécessaire, the even smaller precursor to the minaudière, in black lacquer with gold daisies, but then I found this one, which I bought to go with a pair of Van Cleef ruby earrings. I just needed to replace the comb and have the mirror restored. It’s small for today’s needs, but I use it for events such as dinner.”

Tennenbaum says the most beautiful examples from top houses are now “extremely expensive because of collectors from new markets competing at auction”. Conversely, 1930s examples from less illustrious houses go for anything up to £1,000, according to Susan Caplan, founder of Susan Caplan Vintage, “if they are in good condition”.

After the war, the precious minaudière had a revival. A 1950s engraved gold Van Cleef model was sold by Sotheby’s in July for £13,750, against an estimate of £6,000-£8,000 – a surprise even to senior international jewellery specialist Daniela Mascetti. “It was beautiful, in top condition and signed, but competition between two buyers pushed the price up,” she says. “These styles are becoming desirable for use again, as they are now fetching far more than the weight of gold would indicate. But for a client who buys a new crocodile Kelly bag, they aren’t excessive as a unique evening bag.”

Provenance also makes a difference: Christie’s London recently sold a 1970s Cartier silver-gilt and diamond model that once belonged to the writer/editor and artist Fleur Cowles for £8,125.

Christie’s sales of minaudières are, says Penton, consistent across Britain, Europe and the US, though as an item to use it appears to be an American favourite. Its less exalted successor in the 1950s was the lucite or silver box bag, often trimmed with diamanté. Many originated in the US and they are, says Kerry Taylor of Kerry Taylor Auctions, “much more affordable – from £50 upwards – and easy to wear”.

Carmen Haid of Atelier-Mayer agrees. “I think they fit in with the clean-lined style of traditional American sports chic. Stylish women such as Nan Kempner used to carry them – however decorative, the simple shape gives structure to an outfit.”

Atelier-Mayer currently has several examples of reasonably priced box bags, including an art-deco-style 1930s metal box (£370) and a 1930s gilt rounded style (£310). Vintage Modes has a gilt metal 1950s bag, in its original box and with all the accessories, for £120; while Susan Caplan has a rectangular 1940s bag in silver with rhinestones at £295.

“Metal box bags have always been around,” says Haid, “but they now seem to be part of red-carpet celebrity culture, which has made them more popular” – an effect doubtless enhanced by the Duchess of Cambridge’s prominent positioning of her Hindmarch Marano on the recent North American tour.

Perhaps the best-known European-based fan of Van Cleef & Arpel’s art-deco-inspired minaudières was the Duchess of Windsor, says Taylor, noting that in more recent decades the US focus continued with Judith Lieber’s crystal-coated box bags. “Her flamboyant style, and shapes that varied from snakes to conch shells, were perhaps not to British taste but her 1980s bags are already fetching up to $4,000 at auction.”

A 1980s gold Bulgari Melone bag sold in Geneva in May for SFr13,750 (about £10,825), and even more recent designs are swiftly becoming collectable. Late-1990s examples of Bottega Veneta’s woven silver Knot bags have, says Taylor, already sold for up to $1,800 at American auctions (rather less than the new price, so still a bargain). Alexander McQueen’s handmade, limited-edition box bags with skull clasp look set to go the same way, and it would be foolish to discount the Marano’s prospect of joining them.

See also

Handbags