If the prospect of fighting crowds and choosing gift books seems insurmountably grim, try perusing (but not buying) The Art of Giving by Stuart Jacobson (Abrams: $40; 216 pp.; 253 illustrations, 186 in color) to arouse the holiday spirit. This silly "gift-styles of the rich and famous" demonstrates just how much a thoughtful gesture can mean--especially when it's backed by something like the Andy Warhol painting Pierre Berge gave Yves Saint Laurent, or the 51-carat Golconda diamond Pierre Schlumberger gave his wife, Sao. Remember: It's the thought that counts.
Major gems lie beyond the means of most shoppers: That's one of their chief attractions. But large books about jewelry appear every holiday season, and The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor by Nicholas Rayner and John Culme (Vendome: $50; 208 pp.; 120 illustrations, 75 in color) is sure to be a popular choice. Rayner and Culme combine an account of the sale of her collection (which raised $45 million for AIDS research earlier this year) with an auction catalogue and a brief history of her romance with the Duke. These heavy, late Art Deco pieces may not appeal to every taste, must their quality is indisputable.
American Jewelry: Glamour and Tradition by Penny Prodow & Debra Healy (Rizzoli: $65; 208 pp.; 224 illustrations, 200 in color) is overview that includes both Bulgari's necklaces set with ancient coins and Cartier's early '40s gold and enamel bracelets of Disney cartoon characters. With a past that stretches back to Neolithic times, the bead is a lot more venerable than most people realize, as Lois Dubin demonstrates in her vast The History of Beads: From 30,000 B.C. to the Present (Abrams: $60; 368 pp.; 381 illustrations, 268 in color).
Leslie Fields pays respectful homage to the world's greatest gem collection in The Queen's Jewels: The Personal Collection of Elizabeth II (Abrams: $29.95; 192 pp.; 285 illustrations, 85 in color). Many of these dazzling pieces are less notable for aesthetic quality than sheer size--like the brooch with the 530.2-carat First Star of Africa. The Kremlin and Its Treasures by Irinia Rodimzeva, Nikolai Rachmanov & Alfons Raiman (Rizzoli: $75; 356 pp.; 278 illustrations, 252 in color) features a few examples from the Imperial Russian jewels, which rivaled the British regalia. But the real focus of this magnificent book is the Kremlin itself, the buildings and their history, from the Muscovite princes to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mae West once purred, "I collect diamonds: It's m'hobby." The season's most attractive book on more modest collectibles is Radios: The Golden Age by Philip Collins (Chronicle: $25, cloth; $14.95, paper; 128 pp.; "more than 110" color illustrations). The 50-year-old Art Deco plastic radios remain strikingly elegant. (Will anyone be writing a similar book on contemporary boom boxes and Walkmans in 2037?)
Blue and White China: Origins/Western Influences by Rosalind Fischell (Little, Brown: $35; 160 pp.; 110 illustrations, 90 in color) offers an interesting study in cross-cultural cross pollination. For most of their history, Chinese potters held blue-and-white ware in low esteem, but they adapted Western forms and motifs to please their foreign customers, who adored it. Victor Arwas' more scholarly and less entertaining Glass: Art Nouveau to Art Deco (Abrams: $65; 384 pp.; 478 illustrations, 338 in color) is intended for serious collectors, rather than general readers.
This year's Wretched Excess in Excelcis Award goes to Barbie: Her Life and Times by BillyBoy (Crown: $25; 192 pp.; 400 illustrations, 300 in color), an orchidaceous paean to the popular doll and her clothes. That an adult could devote so much effort to this sustained idiocy is a telling comment on American culture.
A few outstanding books from the current crop on furniture and interior decoration: The designs in Shaker: Life, Work and Art (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $40; 272 pp.; 200 color illustrations) stress the inherent beauty of natural materials in ways that recall traditional Japanese design. The timeless dignity of these furnishings exerts a powerful appeal in an era of gaudy Memphis fripperies.
American Furniture From the Kaufman Collection by J. Michael Flanigan (Abrams: $45; 264 pp.; 178 illustrations, 150 in color) catalogues an impressive assemblage of antiques, but the text is so technical and detailed that it's accessible only to scholars. In contrast, Lucilla Watson's superficial Understanding Antiques (Viking: $19.95; 200 pp.; 600 illustrations, 450 in color) attempts to cover so many arts, styles and countries that reading it is like racing through a minor gallery on roller skates.