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Take a look at V&A Museums’ collection of Art Deco vanity cases in memory of Freddie Mercury

Take a look at V&A Museums’ collection of Art Deco vanity cases in memory of Freddie Mercury

A rare Art Deco collection of exquisite vanity cases in memory of the late Freddie Mercury is dazzling visitors at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, writes Susan Skelly.

It was what the Italians might describe as a colpo d’amore – a gust of love, something that takes your breath away.

For Kashmira Bulsara, a frosted rock crystal card case, depicting a Japanese weeping willow and applied in black enamel and rose-cut diamonds, would trigger a love affair with Art Deco vanity cases.

Bulsara bought the Lacloche piece – made in Paris between 1920 and 1925 – from London jewellery retailer Peter Edwards, known for his expertise in 20th-century jewels.

Over two decades, Edwards would help her shape a collection of 49 Art Deco vanity cases that is now a dazzling attraction of the new jewellery gallery at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Kashmira Bulsara Collection

A glass spiral staircase connects the ground floor with the mezzanine where visitors come face to face with this exquisite 1920s art form. “We’ve dubbed it ‘The Stairway to Heaven’,” declared Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, on opening night.

Bulsara promised the collection to the museum in memory of her late brother, Queen’s flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury, who loved art and beautiful things and was particularly fascinated by the Japanese aesthetic.

Vanity case with multicoloured enamels on an ivory enamel background with rose-cut diamond highlights. Unknown retailer, Strauss Allard & Meyer workshop, c. 1925.
Vanity case with multicoloured enamels on an ivory enamel background with rose-cut diamond highlights. Unknown retailer, Strauss Allard & Meyer workshop, c. 1925.
Double-sided case with onyx body, makeup and cigarette compartments, ivory panel and pencil. Marzo, Paris, c. 1920– 1923.
Double-sided case with onyx body, makeup and cigarette compartments, ivory panel and pencil. Marzo, Paris, c. 1920– 1923.

Mercury was artistic as well as musical, studying art at Isleworth Polytechnic in West London, and graphic art and design at Ealing Art College. He designed the signature heraldic arms for Queen and was creatively involved with several of the band’s album covers.

Edwards collaborated on a book about the vanity cases collection with gemmologist and jewellery historian Sarah Hue-Williams, author of Christie’s Guide to Jewellery and co-author of Hidden Gems: Jewellery Stories from the Saleroom.

Called A Kind of Magic: Art Deco Vanity Cases (Unicorn Press), it is an exploration of the aesthetic blueprint that Art Deco turned out to be.

“Art Deco had a lexicon all of its own and was truly revolutionary,” says Hue-Williams. “The colours, designs, motifs and materials used were all so inventive and avant-garde, and happily matched by an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and skill, which jewellers have struggled to replicate since.”

Jewellery and the 1920’s

With the Roaring Twenties came heady cocktail parties, swinging jazz clubs, Hollywood films, ocean liners and motor cars. What women wore would change dramatically and jewellers were quick to respond, fashioning bandeaus (narrow headbands), sautoirs (long necklaces consisting of a fine gold chain and typically set with jewels) and chic vanity cases.

It was jewellery, says Hue-Williams, that captured the glamour, speed, excitement and optimism of this time in history.

Miniature vanity case with black and cream decoration and compartments for rouge and lipstick and a hidden gold key revealed by opening a small recessed catch. Cartier, New York, 1930.
Miniature vanity case with black and cream decoration and compartments for rouge and lipstick and a hidden gold key revealed by opening a small recessed catch. Cartier, New York, 1930.
Vanity case with pale blue enamel decoration on the centre panel, fluted lapis lazuli and jade to the sides with baguette-cut diamond highlights. Van Cleef & Arpels, c. 1925.
Vanity case with pale blue enamel decoration on the centre panel, fluted lapis lazuli and jade to the sides with baguette-cut diamond highlights. Van Cleef & Arpels, c. 1925.

“Women revelled in new freedom, new fashions and entirely new behaviour,” she says. “Makeup became an increasingly essential part of their look, partly inspired by Hollywood screen icons. No longer considered vulgar and best kept to the privacy of the boudoir, the very act of applying powder and lipstick became part of a public ritual of seduction.

“Clearly this required an entirely new accessory, and so the nécessaire – or vanity case – was born, designed to carry everything a fashionable woman on the move would need.”

Documenting Bulsara’s collection gave Hue-Williams a new appreciation of the jewellers’ craftsmanship.

“These vanity cases are masterpieces, in miniature,” she says. “I love their sculptural look and feel, that they have a practical purpose, and the weight of them in the hand. Many are cylindrical, the convex shape allowing more to be fitted into the interior, as well as to rest comfortably while being carried.”

Hue-Williams’ favourite is an Indo- Persian-inspired case with a colourful enamelling, strong lines, exotic motifs and intricate craftsmanship.

“It sums up the glitz and the glamour of the era,” she says. “Its palpable energy was contagious, and you can see and feel it in these vanity cases.”

This article originally appeared in volume 34 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.