Since the 'Roaring Twenties' many of the fine jewellers and fashion houses have produced delicate evening bags and vanity cases known as “nécessaires.” They were small, usually hard-sided boxes, often exquisitely decorated and designed to contain such things as a powder compact, lipstick, comb, mirror, note card and pencil. Some also had separate sections to hold book matches and individual cigarettes.

The nécessaires hit their heyday in this period and quickly became the new must-have item of any self-respecting lady of the time. They typified the optimism and newfound freedoms for women of the era, and as it quickly became socially acceptable for a lady to smoke or apply make up in public, these slimline accessories quickly caught on.

As it has been predicted by analysts that the post-Covid world could see a return to the lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties, modern day designers are now recreating these pieces to suit contemporary tastes. For example, Cartier introduced its new collection, “Les Nécessaires à Parfum” in May this year, which forms a selection of beautifully decorated perfume accessories, inspired by 20th century vanity cases, with designs coming straight from the Cartier archives. Similarly, vanity cases as handbags are also on trend this year, having been seen on the arms of Rihanna and Irina Shayk with new designs having been launched by Dior and Louis Vuitton, as well as Hunting Season which has collaborated with Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley to create a new version for the brand.

However, genuine, antique nécessaires in their purest of forms can be difficult to find on the market. These really hit headlines in 2019, when Kashmira Bulsara, Freddy Mercury’s sister, exhibited a collection of some 49 Art Deco examples at the Jewellery Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Bulsara collection showcased the intricate designs and workmanship of the period and how these were lavishly decorated with precious stones, enamels and ivory.

The best examples of nécessaires are rare to the auction market and are collected mainly by those who buy powder compacts and other dressing table items, or by followers of a certain jewellery maker from a certain period. The ultimate in desirability for these are the Art Deco varieties, from the mid-1920’s, made by some of the biggest names of the period such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron or Chaumet.

The Right Honourable the Countess Spencer, DCVO, OBE (1897 - 1972)

And of course, anything with royal or celebrity provenance will really add to the value here. For example, in 2010, Sotheby’s sold a Cartier gold and diamond nécessaire which formerly belonged to Wallis Simpson for an astronomic £121,250. At the next Cheffins Jewellery, Silver and Watches sale on 26th August, we will be offering a collection of four nécessaires, three of which once belonged to the Right Honourable the Countess Spencer, the late Princess Diana’s grandmother (pictured above). The fourth was gifted to Lady Anne Wake-Walker, née Spencer, who was Princess Diana’s aunt. It is engraved ‘ANNE’ and inside ‘FROM HOUSEHOLD STAFF, ALTHORP, 4TH AUGUST 1941.’ Most charmingly, it still contains its fully fitted interior with a comb, powder and perfume bottle (pictured below).

Nécessaire belonging to Lady Anne Spencer, available at the Cheffins Jewellery, Silver and Watches sale on 26th August

Lady Anne Spencer was born on 4th August 1920, so we can assume that this was a 21st birthday present and it is being offered, together with the other three, with cast-iron provenance.

Some examples, including Lady Anne Wake-Walker’s, are fitted with wristbands so they could be used like an evening bag. And how charming for an evening bag to have been a compact and beautifully designed, longstanding item which rather than being packed with mobile phones, purses, train tickets, business cards and so on, only bearing the essentials for that evening’s night out.

For would-be collectors, the key here is to look out for an example bearing the name of one of the great design houses, or alternatively something with strong provenance. However, the most important thing is to buy one which you love and will use. For example, some of the smaller versions could be used for make up and tucked into a handbag, or as a cigarette case or to hold business cards. These should be seen and used, not tucked away out of sight. There are some exceedingly pretty versions which can sometimes surface on the auction and antiques market, often with geometric forms signalling the height of the Art Deco period. It is also worth carefully looking at the condition of the piece. Due to their lifetime of wear and tear, often the internal compartments can be damaged, so it is worth going to view one in the flesh before you set about buying it or asking for a condition report if you are buying through auction.

The Cheffins Jewellery, Silver and Watches Sale will take place on 26th August, 2021, in Cambridge, to view the catalogue click here.