A box is one of the essential elements in presenting jewelry. It is a container with a flat base and sides, typically square or rectangular and having a lid, hiding from the outside what is inside. It may suggest thanks to its decorum the importance of what it protects. It teases the eye, inspiring us to feel an emotion as it opens to reveal its secret. A box introduces a level of excitement and mystery to the ceremony of offering a gift to someone or oneself. Without a box, there would be no element of surprise and magic. Without the box, a jewel would have less value.
Jewelry boxes were once like treasure chests for the royalty, priests, and aristocrats who could afford to own valuables worth being stowed away. But as fine jewelry became more affordable during the Industrial Revolution, jewelry boxes, too, were mass-produced for the middle class. There were small boxes made for single rings, larger boxes meant for multiple pieces of varying sizes, and boxes designed for jewelry as well as accessories such as gloves. Some had myriad compartments, drawers, trays, and velvet slots for rings. Others contained mirrors, clocks, or mechanical music-makers. And while many were sealed with a lock and key, some boxes were puzzles whose solution revealed the jewels inside.
There are different ways to classify antique jewelry boxes but the easiest is by historical periods, which are distinctive and representative of the different epochs. While studying the periods, one should take careful note of the quality and types of materials used as well as the designs that characterized them.
Georgian Period (1714-1837)
Styles and designs of the Georgian era were strongly influenced by nature in flowers, feathers, leaves, crescents, insects, and birds, while the Memento Mori reminded one of death with its skull and coffin motifs. Jewelry boxes were handcrafted to personal customizations in very high standards. Antique jewelry boxes from the Georgian era are extremely rare and highly coveted.
Victorian Period (1837-1901)
The early Victorian period was full of romanticism with delicate etchings; the later influences of the East resulted in depictions of flora and fauna in jewelry items and accessories as well as the Shakudo style of gold coloring. Mosaic and relief styles were also popular until the death of Prince Albert, which cast everything in solemn black. The aesthetic period brought star and crescent designs into the picture.
Arts and Crafts (1894-1923)
The arts and crafts period was rife with rebellion from jewelry designers expressed in the simple, colorful designs and stylized birds and plant forms in bold lines. Some of the designs were left unfinished, giving the piece a rustic look.
Edwardian Period (1901-1915)
This era, known as the 'Beautiful Era', brought a new metal, platinum, into jewelry development with fragile, feminine designs in a white-on-white theme with diamonds, pearls, and platinum and sporting motifs. There was heavy Chinese and Indian influence in the designs.
Art Nouveau Period (1895-1915)
The art nouveau period was the most influential in antique jewelry box styles with the romantic influence of Paris in the flower and butterfly motifs. Mythical creatures like chimeras, griffon hounds, and dragons formed part of highly stylized designs celebrating the female form using different types of enameling techniques. Keeping with Victorian tradition, the type of flowers on the jewelry box could represent a coded romantic message: four-leaf clovers meant good luck, daisies meant innocence, and roses were for love. Since most of these metal boxes, made from the turn of the century to the 1920s, have been destroyed or fallen apart, they are highly sought by collectors today.
Fine jewelry companies like Cartier and high-end watchmakers like Patek Philippe, Ulysse Nardin, and Blancpain provided specially designed boxes for their wares.
Perhaps the most coveted of these is the Paraiba blue box of Tiffany & Co. Founded by Charles Lewis Tiffany in 1837, the New York retailer quickly became known as the epitome of luxury and style, as did its signature jewelry boxes.
So coveted was Tiffany jewelry, that it is became an essential part of the fairy-tale romance. The company has a trademark on "Tiffany Blue," a private custom color created by Pantone, PMS number 1837.
As the legend goes, jewelry artist extraordinaire Mr. Joel Arthur Rosenthal (JAR) presented his first creations using a box, from which he unveiled three rings, one by one. Clients would be patiently introduced to each ring one by one, taking the time to appreciate the details of craftsmanship and design, under the watchful and confident eye of their creator. The box was the element of controversy, triggering an excitement to see more. Clients would request him to leave the box opened and let them “dig in”, which he firmly refused. There were only a few pieces, and Mr. Rosenthal wanted to make sure his clients would remember each design he presented to them. The box helped him create the aura of mystery and glamour which clients needed in order to feel inspired to the extent of referring their friends to visit his showroom for a unique experience.
Contemporary Canadian-Trinidadian artist Talwst works in mixed media and performance practices. He is currently engaged in his ongoing and prolific infinity series of miniature dioramas in reclaimed ring boxes. An exploration across cultures and time periods, through these works Talwst aims to draw attention to absent or misinterpreted narratives, suggest the non-linear complexities of history, and explore relationships between cultures. He has produced a number of sub series in this format that focus on themes such as inserting marginalized narratives into art history and drawing parallels between disparate cultural histories.
He was given one day an old ring box by a Parisian street vendor, who told him: “I want to see what you make with this.” Talwst placed a miniature figure emerging from a tiny seascape inside and, ever since, has been creating dioramas of scenes inspired by pop culture, current events and everyday experiences. “I like to capture memories and fleeting moments,” he says. “They feel all the more moving because of their fugitive nature.” He hunts out the ring boxes in antique markets and on eBay, and is sent old ones by fans. “I want the viewer to open the box and feel they have been transported to another world.”
“At first I was into music. I was obsessed with Hip-hop, all the way back to my parents’ stuff with Sugar Hill Gang. I wanted to be the next Ginuwine, I was working hard to be an R&B singer. But I went back and forth with labels for a long time, because they thought I was too indie rock for black kids, and too R&B for white kids. I battled with labels. Eventually I got really depressed, and I started focusing on visual art about six years ago as a new outlet to express my vision.” Canadian-Trinidadian Mixed-Media Artist Talwst was interviewed by Forbes Lifestyle contributor Adam Lehrer in April 2015 when he made this statement.
When asked about beauty and what inspired him, he claimed: “It has to be something that you feel in your gut. It’s like when you see a Van Gogh for the first time and you start to see that up close, the piece isn’t perfect. Imperfection is beautiful […] I was at a party, and this woman was feeding her dog under the dinner table, trying to hide the dog from everyone, and she looked at me and said, “If it’s not the dog, it’s the Lithium.” That’s how I feel right now, I need to make art and if not, it’ll be lithium. It makes me sane.”
To all my jewelry lovers, next time you have a jewelry box in your hands, please take time to appreciate the box itself. The box protects the jewel, introduces it, stimulates your imagination and contributes to making the moment special. A jewelry box is therefore an essential part of what jewelry is about: the art of creating a memorable emotion.