Weekend: Antiques/collecting - Cosmetics Were More Than a Puff; A Book Documenting the Life of Cosmetics Pioneer Helena Rubenstein Is as Perfect as the Powder Boxes She Created, Says Richard Edmonds

The Birmingham Post (England), December 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

Weekend: Antiques/collecting - Cosmetics Were More Than a Puff; A Book Documenting the Life of Cosmetics Pioneer Helena Rubenstein Is as Perfect as the Powder Boxes She Created, Says Richard Edmonds


Byline: Richard Edmonds

I have noted for quite some time the slow rise in price of scent bottles and their packaging in what we used to call at one time the cheap end of the perfume market.

Packaging by the great houses has always held its price well and collectors still buy names such as Guerlain, Worth, Houbigant and these items appear regularly in the great fairs, and when the bottle and stopper are by Lalique, the sky, it seems, is the limit.

But it is the lesser known scent bottles and packaging which have been turning up for the last two or three years carrying price tags that grow ever larger. So Yardley and lavender water have always gone together like Imperial Leather and soap. Yardley's 1950s bottles, often with the remains of the original lavender water inside, and with the original box as packaging now fetch between pounds 30 and pounds 35 at fairs. If in fine condition the price will go even higher.

At the last NEC Antiques For Everyone Fair, I found a dealer from Bath with fans, jewellery, combs and 1920s hair ornaments, evening bags and so on, who was also showing a selection of the scent bottles used in the 1930s and 40s for the range of cosmetics called 'Evening in Paris', 'Mischief' and 'Taboo'. There were many others, of course, but I do not have the space to discuss them all.

The little pale blue Bakelite hotel doors with the tiny pair of black shoes outside waiting to be polished by room service testified to a way of life that has gone. But inside this little door you found a small, dark blue glass scent bottle containing 'Mischief'.

Once upon a time, these things could be purchased in Woolworth for a few shillings and a variation on the design was a pale blue Bakelite owl or a black Bakelite top hat. I have always thought how elegant they were and how they taught a design ethic to people who could not afford very much but wanted something special. Today, you will be likely to have to dip deep into your pocket for the same thing. The little blue door is there, and if it is complete it will cost you about pounds 80. Yet these things are worth looking out for and their packaging is a delight and you should be able to find examples up and down the price range. Handkerchief boxes once made for present giving in the 1920s are often a joy and so are chocolate boxes which are a personal favourite. If you manage to find scent, box and lid intact, you've done well.

The French call such an area of collecting 'cartonnage' and it is an area well worth considering as prices rise. You should look in the junk shops and flee markets for such treasures both here and abroad. Apparently, Avon cosmetics marketed an Ancient Egyptian cat in opaline glass some years ago and, not surprisingly, this too has become scarce.

The great parfumeurs and cosmeticians such as Coty, Worth, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, to name only a few, produced some lovely bottles and packaging items which have long been deemed highly desirable. Worth's blue glass sphere covered in sculpted stars is now valued at about pounds 1,000 for the original 1930s version. And yet I have seen a modern edition for pounds 20. But since the glass was fashioned by the great Lalique you must always make sure that it is complete and has its stopper or the price falls dramatically.

Marcel Rochas created the famous perfume 'Femme' in 1943 and a million women sighed contentedly (my mother among them) as it went into circulation. One Christmas I saw the box which went with the Lalique bottle. It was plain white on a black base but it was covered in real black lace. One of the most innovative cosmeticians of the 20s and 30s who always recognised the importance of attractive packaging was Helena Rubinstein . A new book on this legendary woman is an occasion to be relished, and if you have got any book tokens left use them to buy it.

Over The Top by Suzanne Slesin (Pointed Leaf Press: pounds 45) has some fascinating illustrations which show the inside picture of Rubinstein's life and help to paint a vivid portrait of this astonishing woman who did so much to raise the appreciation of cosmetics and their packaging among women on low incomes and whose gift for interior design, personal couture and art collecting have made her into one of the great figures of the 20th century. …

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