The expanding world and the public’s increasing curiosity of cultures far from Europe in the 1920s inspired artists and jewelers alike to incorporate these exotic motifs into their work. Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese themes and designs could be seen everywhere in jewelry, from brooches and pendants to panel bracelets and vanity cases.
“Europe’s dialogue with the art of the Far East, which began in the early seventeenth century, is one of the most fascinating chapters in the history culture. It started with a passion for Chinese silk which later extended to porcelain and lacquer, products which were virtually a monopoly of the Dutch and British East India Companies. The precious cargoes, generally sent by sea, through Dutch Batavia and along the Coromandel coast of India, or from the port of Canton, were marketed in Europe as ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘Japanese’. By the middle of the eighteenth century, almost every European palace had its ‘Chinese’ lacquer cabinet – even if the majority were manufactured in European workshops – to the delight of all those ‘tired of the elegance and symmetry of the Greeks’. Essentially, the eighteenth-century interest in Chinese art was a dilettante fascination with the exotic…” (source)
As for vanity cases, they witnessed their heyday during the Art Deco period, surging in popularity as coin purses of the previous era faded out of fashion. Seeing these cases as a grand opportunity for jewelers to demonstrate their artistic prowess, they prolifically created elegant cases to hold a lady’s “vanity” necessities: powder compact, lipstick, tortoiseshell comb and mirror. Vanity cases ranged from simple black onyx boxes with the owner’s initials to elaborate Chinese lacquer panels and mother-of-pearl inlays. Specifically to this post, Chinese motifs began to set the style in haute couture at least as early as 1923, the year of the Paris Opera Chinese Ball.
Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Lacloche created some of the most exquisite vanity cases featuring Chinese motifs. Highly detailed and skilled in the art of Chinese mother-of-pearl lacquer, the scenes depict the exotic scenery and every day life in far east China during the early 20th century. Made from jade, onyx, coral and other hard stones with precious gem accents, these tiny panels of art in miniature provided the perfect landscape for artistic freedom and challenged jewelers in mastering ancient techniques.
Chinese lacquer of the Ming period was built up from as many as two hundred separately dried layers; French Art Deco lacquer artists contented themselves with about twenty layers. However, clever shortcuts to retain the quality of the Ming period’s skill in lacquer were often used. In an effort to preserve this ancient technique and his work’s integrity, Louis Cartier began collecting mother-of-pearl lacquer from the leading antique dealers of the time, extracting them from Chinese bowls, tables or trays. Another technique of Chinese origin commonly used on vanity cases is known as ‘lacque burgauté’ and involves dying layers of mother-of-pearl into pink, blue, green and purple tones, so as to create vivid contrasts of color in extremely detailed scenes. While Cartier may have been the preeminent make of these Chinese lacquer vanity cases, other notable jewelers created equally beautiful Chinese-inspired cases using different techniques such as enameling.
Eventually, the vanity case would give way to the handbag, purse and evening clutch, no longer of practical or even ornamental purpose. Now it serves as a beautiful and ornate objet d’art, a lovely reminder of the high times and opulence of the Roaring Twenties.
Photos courtesy of Sotheby’s
18 Karat Gold, burgauté Lacquer, Enamel, Mother-of-Pearl, Jade and Diamond Vanity Case, Cartier, France
The front and reverse set with two rectangular lacque burgauté panels depictingChinoiserie garden scenes illustrating a scholar and his apprentice, decorated with a carved jade tablet and small rose-cut diamonds, bordered by red enamel, the edges heightened in black enamel applied in a geometric motif, the interior fitted with a mirror and two compartments, measuring approximately 3 by 2 by ½ inches, signed Cartier Paris Londres New York, numbered 8453, with French assay and partial workshop marks; circa 1925.
Often made during the nineteenth century in China or Japan, the lacque burgauté plaques seen here were often imported by Cartier from the Far East. To achieve the smooth and glossy finish of the tablets, which were typically set with tinted and engraved mother-of-pearl inlays, multiple layers of lacquer and various polishing techniques were utilized. The geometric enamelwork and carved jade decorations on the present vanity case further exemplify the influence of Eastern motifs on Art Deco designs.
Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s
A LAQUE BURGAUTÉ, ENAMEL, DIAMOND, GOLD AND PLATINUM VANITY CASE BY CARTIER, 1928
In 1913, Cartier produced their first cigarette cases based on 19th-century Chinese mother-of-pearl mosaics and soon Louis Cartier started collecting mother-of-pearl laquer systematically from the leading antique dealers of the time, which he used in his objets d’art. According to Hans Nadelhoffer, mother-of-pearl was, from ancient times ‘valued for the rose, lavender-blue and shimmering greens of the thin, innermost layers of sea and freshwater mussels. Early mother-of-pearl inlays from the Tang dynasty were too thick to permit the iridescence of the full colour range, but the craftsmen of the later Ming and Ching periods used tissue-thin slivers to produce delicately scintillating effects (…). Mother-of-pearl had a magical authority within the Taoist scheme. Moonbeams and the dust of powdered mother-of-pearl were the food of the immortal He Xiangu, and its insubstantial shimmering colours were, for the Taoists, a token of eternity. Mother-of-pearl was a favourite material in depictions of the Taoist Paradise of the West, which showed the caves of the Eight Immortals, the goddess Djivangmu riding on her phoenix and the Peaches of Immortality which ripened every three thousand years.
The laquers used by Cartier’s in the 1920s were mostly taken from Chinese bowls, trays or tables; the relation to the original decorative context was necessarily sacrificed as a result. Because of their small format the motifs that came to hand were not concerned with the great themes of Taoist mythology. Even so, they conjure up the poetic and allegorical feeling for nature at the heart of Taoism. On one of these Cartier laquers two of the Immortals are strolling beneath the summer moon, deep in conversation; on another a maid light her mistress’s way with a lantern; on another we observe a sage with his disciple in a pine grove. These little panels, which sit well with the art deco ensemble of coral, lapis lazuli and onyx, are often further embellished with cabochon gemstones: rubies may serve to pick out cherry blossoms or trace the line of a bridge, a sapphire lights up a distant boat, the moon shimmers through the facets of a rose-cut diamond.’ (Hans Nadelhoffer, Cartier: Jewelers Extraordinary, p. 201)