Professional Jeweler Archive: Bag It

October 2000

From the Vault

Bag It

The mesh evening purse holds all the essentials for a night on the town

A woman’s purse is her lifeline. It holds all the little necessities – identification, cash, credit cards, keys, eyeglasses, cosmetics, notebook, pen and a multitude of other items somehow fit into the various handbags, clutches, pocketbooks and other receptacles designed for this purpose.

Purses appeared in Europe around the 11th century when it was practical to wear them suspended from a belt around the waist. Men carried them too until the 18th century, when the purse became a strictly feminine accessory. The fashion for wearing or carrying purses grew more widespread in the late-19th century as women became more independent and self-sufficient. By the 20th century, purses had became an indispensable appendage for the modern woman.

Night and Day

Different activities and social events call for different types of purses, ranging from strong, utilitarian bags for work to sleek, decorative, even jeweled bags for gala evenings. Some of the most beautiful evening bags are those made between 1890 and 1915 of gold- or silver-ring mesh.

Before 1900, ring mesh was predominantly made by hand. Tiny gold or silver rings were assembled into a fine flexible mesh bag connected to a hinged, metal frame. The mesh bag was lined with silk or linen to hide its contents. The frames were frequently embossed or engraved, and some were further enhanced with gemstones or enamel. Little metal balls, fringe or tassels often hung from the bottom of the bag for a decorative touch.

In 1909, A.C. Pratt patented a machine that manufactured metallic mesh, and ring-mesh purses became increasingly fine, reaching a pinnacle of excellence in the early 1900s. Superlative examples have the suppleness of fabric and are liberally enhanced with gems.

Elegant Sophistication

The turn of the 20th century brought a gradual shift in the decorative arts, from the romantic historicism of the Victorian era to the elegant sophistication of the Edwardian age. The shape of the serenely beautiful evening bag pictured here reflects this trend toward streamlined modernism in jewelry and clothing that evolved around 1910. The platinum frame is set with diamonds and French-cut calibre sapphires, and the clasp features a cabochon sapphire. A tassel, embellished with seed pearls, dangles from a point at the bottom of the bag. The purse is carried by a fine mesh strap, while a sapphire-set gold slide holds it snugly around the wrist.

The slim profile of this delicious evening bag tells us it wasn’t intended to hold much more than a handkerchief, scent bottle, smelling salts and possibly money. The bulge you see is a mirror, suspended inside the bag, suggesting the lady might also have carried lipstick and powder, although the use of makeup in public was considered quite radical in polite society until after World War I.

As the 20th century advanced, new vanity cases with built-in compartments for makeup, money, cigarettes and keys appeared, and the mesh bag faded from fashion. Today, we are rediscovering these marvelous mesh treasures, elegant reminders of a luxurious past.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

Supple as fabric, gold mesh evening purses like this became fashionable among wealthy upper-class women circa 1910. Purse courtesy of S.H. Silver Co., Menlo Park, CA; (650) 325-9500.

Photo by Robert Weldon

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications