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Ultra Vanities - Goldsmiths' Hall

Compact by Tiffany

Exhibition preview

ULTRA Vanities – Bejewelled Make-Up Boxes from the Age of Glamour is on display at Goldsmiths’ Hall until Saturday, July 20, 2013.

This extraordinary exhibition celebrates a unique, private collection of exquisite, finely wrought, jewelled and emamelled boxes that were all the rage in the 1920’s through to the 1970’s.

With early, minimal and elegant pieces from the 1920’s shown alongside extravagantly adorned examples from the 1970’s, Ultra Vanities provides a window on a glamorous world of luxury and elegance, reflecting the social and design history of the times.

Aside from being stunning objets d’art, the boxes were miracles of miniature engineering featuring tiny components, all contained in a very small space. A powder compact, lipstick, comb, cigarette holder, mirror and occasionally, a little note pad and pencil were typical components – everything a lady might need for a night out!

Some also had special slip cases made in rich, matching fabrics or a precious leather, notably shagreen.

Such essential accessories or necessaires were created by all the major jewellery houses with status and refinement in mind. They were designed to rest, glittering on cocktail bars and grand dining tables, and to be coveted and admired for their preciousness and ingenuity.

The decoration on these works of art could range from sleek and functional to ornate and highly imaginative, often involving the combined talents of various artists and craftsmen including goldsmiths, enamellers, stone-setters and engravers. They were remarkable feats of superior craftsmanship, often taking months of intricate, painstaking work to create.

The materials used provided the designer with infinite possibilities. A varied colour palette came in the form of precious stones encompassing every colour of the rainbow. These in turn could be used in conjunction with jades, mother of pearl, emamels, lacquer, tortoise-shell and other materials helping to contribute texture and interest.

All the major art and fashion trends were reflected in the design and decoration and as with much of the jewellery produced during this period, were inspired by the Art Deco movement and the symbolism and exotic motifs of the near and Far East.

All leading jewellery houses including Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany, Chaumet, Bulgari and others in London, Paris and New York produced make-up cases in their ‘house-style’ to accessorise their fashion clientele.

With more than 200 gold, silver and platinum examples, Ultra Vanities provides an excellent overview of the luxury design trends and styles of the period.

The curator of the exhibition Meredith Etherington-Smith, celebrated arts journalist and editor, who has written the associated book explains:

“This unique private collection marks and celebrates a precise era in the long history of cosmetics. As such it is interesting not solely because of the exquisite workmanship and imagination of these boxes, nor the miracles of miniature engineering that went into their interior fitments but in showing the power these boxes still have to evoke a certain golden era in the long history of human beauty and adornment.”

The exhibition is being staged in the principal first floor rooms of Goldsmiths’ Hall, transformed for the occasion into an elegant, Parisian salon of the 1930’s and dressed with historic touches and references to a bygone age of glamour.

The associated book, Ultra Vanities – Minaudieres, Necessaires and Compacts written by Meredith Etherington-Smith, is on sale during the exhibition priced £39.95.

Ultra Vanities Gallery

Admission: Free.

Times: Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm.

Goldsmiths’ Hall, Foster Lane, London, EC2V 6BN

Tel: 020 7606 7010