"The Artful Handbag," by Judith Leiber

"The Artful Handbag," by Judith Leiber

The 24-karat handbag

New York Times, November 19, 2008

NEW YORK — NEW YORK: Holiday shoppers stuck between the gift of a handbag or a piece of jewelry can rest easy. A flood of deluxe designer bags, embellished with precious metals and stones, has rendered the question moot.

Judith Leiber, the Hungarian-born designer and author of "The Artful Handbag," covered this territory for decades, creating dazzling minaudières, or evening bags, for first ladies and Hollywood starlets. New are the jewelers who have popped up in her likeness.

A fine, if extreme, example, is the "platinum bijoux" evening bag from Tanaka Kikinzoku Jewelry, of Japan, bedecked with 208 carats of diamonds. Weighing in at 800 grams, or 1.8 pounds, the one-of-a-kind bag required a year to complete and is now on offer for ¥200 million, or $2 million. It was originally intended to serve as a showpiece. But Naoto (Nick) Mizuki, general manager of marketing, says the company is considering a line of similar bags, at somewhat lower prices.

It was only a matter of time. Between a bag and a jewel, each costing $2,000, "it's much easier to sell the handbag," the New York-based designer Kara Ross said. "There's such a romantic connotation to fine jewelry. A woman may want it but will go home and ask her husband to buy it."

Ross began her career designing custom-made jewelry in platinum and diamonds. Three years ago, she migrated to handbags made from exotic skins, which she accents with offbeat stones such as pale green prehnite, hematite and rock crystal. She now does such a brisk trade in bags, the bulk of which retail for less than $3,000, that they account for nearly 50 percent of her business.

Over the past year, more jewelers have begun to embrace the two-in-one approach, not least because it offers a way to diversify their product lines in an uncertain economy.

"Ladies know more about handbags because the value of jewelry - of precious stones and pearls - is still relatively unknown," said Anna Gaia, vice president of Utopia, a pearl jewelry manufacturer in Milan.

In April, Utopia capitalized on that discrepancy in consumer knowledge by presenting three handbag styles - two in crocodile skin and one in lizard - at the Baselworld luxury fair, each retailing for around $8,000. One features a detachable insert of South Sea pearls and diamonds doubling as a pendant.

Another Italian, Roberto Coin, is finishing a 2009 handbag collection that riffs off a series of limited-edition evening clutches he introduced in 2007. Spun from leather covered in 24-karat gold, the bags start at $25,000.

Coin said he began by asking, "How can we make our jewelry into leatherbags?"

The answer, in his case, was simple: He incorporated his trademark ruby and yellow gold finish into the design. For other handbag newcomers, weaving the motifs and signature elements of a jewelry collection into the bags is one way to distinguish them in a crowd.

Dominique Cohen, a Los Angeles jeweler, focused on the hardware that adorns her new handbag line, to be introduced next spring.

"Like our jewelry, each element was cast from original molds," Cohen said.

For women with a taste for the exotic, there are the handbags made by the Bangkok jeweler Lotus Arts de Vivre. Natural materials such as liana wood and palm sticks lend the pieces an organic, sculptural quality. One bag, for example, is made from curlicue cinnamon sticks that retain their fragrance thanks to a vial of cinnamon oil that accompanies each purchase.