Applying lipstick has long been considered a seductive art – so much so that the stars of Hollywood’s golden age would be photographed “in the act” for publicity shots. The lipsticks themselves were part of this performance, too, with statement-making cases ranging from the decadent to the bizarre. One black lacquer Cartier example from c1935 is adorned with an onyx-inlaid gold disc enamelled with the words “Forget me not”. Whimsical, bold and evocative of 1920s flapper girls, it is being offered by Connecticut-based jewellers Betteridge for $5,400.
The appeal is not lost on Clare Phillips, a curator at the V&A, which is home to a c1935 classic gold Mappin & Webb lipstick case. “Some of the 1920s and ’30s examples from the big jewellery houses are absolutely exquisite, not to mention incredibly tactile – these were a fashion to be relished on several levels,” she says. Indeed, there are few examples that could be enjoyed more than the two vintage gold Boucheron cases studded with precious jewels that are currently on sale at LuxuryBazaar.com for $3,400 each.
Other revered jewellers that produced precious cases include Tiffany & Co. Beverly Hills jeweller Beladora’s present stock features a 1960s design ($2,950) for the New York house by Jean Schlumberger, in a woven design of textured yellow and white gold. “Those signed by the primary jewellers are more desirable, of course,” says owner Russell Fogarty. “Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany always attract interest.” He adds that, “We normally source our lipstick cases – together with vanity cases and compacts – from large estate sales.” At Sotheby’s, in May last year, a 1920s Cartier enamel case was paired with an ivory, enamel and diamond buckle in a sale from the estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe; it sold for £8,750, almost 10 times its top estimate.
Indeed, it’s as part of larger accessory and vanity sets that lipstick cases are often sourced. Beladora has two art deco holders with matching compacts (from $2,850), while at Bonhams, where Knightsbridge head of jewellery Carole Gordon has noticed a surge in interest in such art deco items from the major houses, an evening bag and matching lipstick holder by Piaget realised £8,125 in June. And in July, Christie’s New York sold a sleek 14ct-gold case by Cartier that neatly incorporates a watch, and is accompanied by an enamel powder case adorned with diamond arrow motifs, for $3,250.
“Such beautiful examples are often bought by those looking for objets d’art to display,” says Sophie Jackson, who co-runs Bond Street vintage jewellery specialist Symbolic & Chase, which has an 18ct-gold Van Cleef & Arpels art deco lipstick case (£3,000) decorated with turquoise, black and red enamel, as well as a rare 1920s lapis lazuli, lacquer and diamond example (£15,000) by Boucheron. “I love it when jewels are worn and objects used, but people often worry about throwing something so precious into their handbags.”
Kara Green, a former PR executive, displays her 200-strong collection on bookcases and inside shadow boxes in her home. “My first was a 1950s Revlon Futurama designed by Van Cleef & Arpels, bought because it was so pretty,” she says. One of her rarest finds is an early 1960s Revlon Couturines lipstick that resembles a doll, complete with mink “hat”.
Virginia-based editor Cissy Viebranz is an aficionado at the other end of the collecting spectrum. “I wear lipstick every day and enjoy using a beautiful case,” she says, adding that she recently refilled her French c1950 18ct-gold case ($2,500) with Tom Ford’s Pink Tease shade, a process that involves freezing the new lipstick before implanting it in the vintage case.
But whether they are bought to be used or displayed, cases like Viebranz’s from the 1950s onwards are easier to come by than their art deco counterparts. Designs by British company Stratton, particularly the 1950s Lipstick Royale, are sought after for their beautifully enamelled scenes, while metal figural versions – such as the 1950s Leaning Tower of Pisa case on sale through 1stdibs for about £645 – attract attention because of their rarity
But it’s the one-off commissions by the big houses, often in idiosyncratic designs, that can attract very serious prices; a 1970 Chaumet gold and coral case designed in the image of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s lips for a client’s wedding is for sale through Symbolic & Chase for £60,000. If the price is any indicator, this lipstick must surely be the pharaoh-est of them all…