Goulden moment inspired an iconic design
Who was Florence Jay Gould? It depends who you’re talking to… Susan Ronald author of A Dangerous Woman: American Beauty, Noted Philanthropist, Nazi Collaborator – The Life of Florence Gould (2019) describes her as: “a sexual predator, a grande horizontale (she slept and traded with the enemy), natural-born gambler, gold-digger (even after she married her fortune), a knowing buyer of looted art, racketeer (introducing the Mafia to the French Riviera), adroit business woman (not averse to paying bribes), owner of hotels and casinos, a banker to Göring’s personal bank; and, importantly, a talented airbrusher of her nefarious past.” That’s from an article by Ronald in The Daily Beast, September 2018.
Other publications give a less racy perspective. Florence Gould (1895-1983) was the wife of Frank Jay Gould, the son of the American railroad magnate Jay Gould. She and her husband helped make the French Riviera fashionable and she hosted a literary salon attended by the likes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, André Gide, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dalí. Gould also inspired one of Van Cleef & Arpels’ most iconic designs – the minaudière. Ironically, after all those adventures, this seems to be the thing that she’s remembered for. One evening in the 1930s, Charles Arpels noticed Florence Jay Gould putting all her accessories into a Lucky Strike cigarette tin and spotted an opportunity. In response to the obvious need for a receptacle, he went on to design an ingenious box that could hold all the objects that a lady might need for an evening out. Arpels called the box the minaudière, which translates as “airs and graces” and was named for his sister, Estelle Arpels, who was famous for her smile. The word has come to mean a small, decorative handbag without handles or a strap.
There’s a Van Cleef & Arpels diamond and ruby-set minaudière (c. 1935) coming up for sale as part of Adam’s Fine Jewellery and Watches auction on 14 May (Lot 39: est. €15,000 to €20,000). It’s a fascinating object, but examining it leaves more questions than answers. Made in 18 k gold and measuring 14 x 7.9 x 1.5cm it’s too large to fit in a pocket but a bit small to carry as a clutch. Claire-Laurence Mestrallet, auctioneer, suggest that the minaudière may have originally fitted into a custom made silk bag but, since it’s clearly destined for a museum or collector’s cabinet, the point is academic.
The surface of the minaudière is finely ribbed with a decorative band set with calibré-cut rubies and diamonds. This makes it seem more like a piece of jewellery than a receptacle. Under the lid, it is divided into three compartments. One still smells of powder. Another might have been for eye shadow or rouge. The lid that covers these sections is mounted with a mirror, complete with bevelled edge.
The largest compartment may have been designed for cigarettes, but only if they were very much smaller than they are now, and there is a miniature cigarette lighter concealed in the side of the piece. It’s like a teeny weeny Zippo lighter and gives the elegant piece the air of a Swiss Army knife for girls. In the opposite side is a lipstick holder. This again is very much smaller than any modern lipstick. Were lipsticks smaller then? Or did the ladies of the 1930s simply bring their minaudière to their cosmetician to be fitted out with their products of choice? Either way, the minaudière has all the appeal of a miniature object that contains secrets.
In 1933, Van Cleef & Arpels patented a technique known as “mystery set” which had evolved to decorate the flat surfaces of minaudières. The technique involves setting precious stones and pearls to create an unbroken swathe of colour with no metal to be seen between them. It required gold rails of less than a fifth of a millimetre in thickness and hours of painstaking craftsmanship. The technique evolved and soon migrated into jewellery. It was, and still is, widely copied.
Another key technique pioneered by Van Cleef & Arpels was “cordes ludo”, a way of weaving and braiding solid threads to form a literal rope of gold that hung on the body like fabric. There are two early Van Cleef & Arpels cordes ludo pieces in the sale at Adams: a diamond and gold jarretiere bracelet, (c. 1945-50) (Lot 40: est. €7,000 to €9,000) and a gold “1900” necklace (c.1950) (Lot 41: est. €9,000 to €11,000). The bracelet is designed as four-rows of gold ropework, which drape over the wrist, with a round brilliant-cut diamond bar clasp with gold ropework trim at one end and pavé-set diamond cap and tassel terminals at the other. The passementerie is amazing, with twisted ropes and exquisitely fine tassels that look like the tie-backs for tiny golden curtains.
A very similar bracelet was included in a major Van Cleef & Arpels retrospective at the Palais Galliera, Paris, in 1992.
The cordes ludo necklace is also made from flexible ropes of gold, but without the lovely tassels.
It looks as though it is designed to drape towards the clavicles, but actually sits up on the neck like a choker, the three strands each finding their separate place. You’d need a good neck to carry it off.
Adam’s auction of Fine Jewellery & Watches takes place on Tuesday at 6pm.