ART NOUVEAU JEWELRY BOXES
by Joanne Wiertella
Jewelry boxes have long been treasured, for they have held precious items—sometimes valuable in themselves, sometimes valuable for their memories. Throughout history, jewelry boxes were constructed and designed by craftsmen, one box at a time, each a unique piece reflecting the style of the time and locale.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, all this changed. As we know, the concept of mass production was avidly adopted in the United States during the late 19th early 20th centuries. And for the first time, metal objects like jewelry boxes, for example, could be cast in quantity and, therefore, were less costly to produce.
The Industrial Revolution also encouraged the development of the middle class in America which was now also able to purchase decorative items, not just the essentials. And international travel and trade brought their attention to new decorative styles all over the world. The Victorian Period, immensely popular in the United States about 1880-1900, had a great effect, and soon after, the Art Nouveau style emerged from France.
American ladies of the early 1900’s aspired to the “high style” of the world’s great cities like London and Paris. Mail order catalogs--Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and Marshall Field--enabled the American family to peruse the products, jewelry boxes ammong them, and make purchases from their own homes. Of course, jewelry stores also carried a selection of jewelry boxes, “the latest” designs purchased from wholesalers and displayed in their windows. The sale of jewel boxes as souvenirs was another phenomenon. Increased travel to points of interest around the country, combined with a Victorian carry-over desire for trinkets, encouraged travelers to purchase mementos of their journey. Jewel boxes were always a popular selection.
Also called “jewel cases,” “caskets” and occasionally “trinket boxes,” they were classified as Art Metal Wares and usually made of cast metal, finished—or plated--in gold, silver, copper or ivory. A popular misconception today is that there may have been some iron in the metal. I often hear the remark, “A magnet will not stick to it.” According to an October 1908 article in Jewelers’ Circular—Weekly, the most common base metals for jewel boxes were actually spelter or antimonial lead. Almost all of the alloys used for jewel boxes were of metals with low melting points (or “soft” metal), thus explaining the weak or broken hinges often seen on jewel boxes today.
Art Metal manufacturers, during the early 1900’s, experimented with many finishes. Jewel boxes were electroplated with gold (sometimes called “Ormolu”), silver, and a variety of other finishes such as “French Bronze,” “Roman Gold,” “Pompeian Gold,” “French Gray,” “Parisian Silver,” and others, among them copper. The copper finish was popular for souvenirs—particularly for copper mines—and easy to accomplish, since most jewel boxes were first plated with copper as a base for the gold and silver finishes. Around 1911, white or ivory finishes were introduced. Rather than the plating method, these finishes were achieved by painting with white enamel, then applying various oxides, resulting in “Old Ivory,” “Oriental Ivory,” “Old Antique Ivory,” and “Tinted Ivory.” Ivory enamel finished boxes were advertised as “more lasting than gold or silver plated boxes” and, in fact, they were.
Jewel boxes were lined with fine pale-colored silks from Japan (sometimes referred to as “Jap silk”) and China, and also with faille (a ribbed silk), satin or sateen, and were often trimmed with a fine twisted satin cord. Some jewel boxes were lined with velvet which tended to be in brighter colors. Jewel boxes were available in all sizes—from the smallest ring box to handkerchief- and even glove-size boxes! Often they were decorated as beautifully on the bottoms, as they were on the tops.
The most prominent decorative style of jewel box during the early 1900’s, was Art Nouveau--a romantic style noted for its flowing, asymmetrical lines, with motifs relating to nature—flowers and vines, birds, women wwith flowing hair. While most people today associate Art Nouveau with the graceful “nymph-like” young women, it is important to mention that floral motifs held a major place in the American Nouveau jewelry box world. The “language of flowers” had become a particularly popular concept during the Victorian Period. At the turn of the century, these “sentiments” were also reflected in the Art Nouveau style on jewelry boxes: the four-leaf clover for good luck, daisies for innocence, roses for love and beauty, and so on.
Other motifs gained favor also. It was a time of great archeological discoveries. Ancient temples in Egypt and Pompeii (destroyed by a volcanic eruption) were being explored, and those styles were copied. A resurgence of interest in Greek and Roman styles was another source for decorative motifs. And Americans began to reflect on their own history, with a renewed interest in its Colonial days. Many jewel boxes were depictions of pre-Civil War plantation life.
There were several American art metal manufacturers that designed and produced jewel boxes. Names that might be familiar are Jennings Brothers (JB), Kronheimer and Oldenbusch (K&O), Benedict Manufacturing Co., and N.B.Rogers. But there were others: The Art Metal Works, whose founder invented a method for electroplating (ormolu) gold onto the base metal; the Brainard & Wilson Corporation (B&W) which patented one of the first Art Nouveau jewel box designs; and Weidlich Brothers (WB Mfg Co), which took several patents on their Colonial designs. As an interesting note, Weidlich jewelry box designer A.J. Flauder, was “a subject of the King of Austria, and resident of Bridgeport” CT, a clear indication that the design of jewel boxes still held a prominent role in their manufacture.
Many manufacturers trademarked their pieces, others did not. Sometimes those that normally did sign their wares were asked not too. For example, Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward implied in their catalogs that they were the manufacturer supplying the merchandise, so they would not want a manufacturer’s trademark on the items they sold. For this reason, one may find two identical jewel boxes—one with a trademark, another without.
Even though these jewel boxes were “mass-produced,” peak production lasted fewer than 15 years (1904-1918). And remember, the term “mass production” during 1900-1910 held a completely different meaning then than that it does today. Fortunately, we can still discover examples of these (almost) 100-year-old decorative treasures. Gold and silver finished boxes are the most common. Regretfully, the silver-finished boxes have not fared well, unless actually “silver plate”—a rare find. Next most rare are souvenir jewel boxes with commemorative ceramic or photo discs. And the ivory finished boxes, although somewhat later in development, remain elusive. Their finishes were more durable, so they may still be handed down within families.
Overall, the greatest difficulty with jewel boxes is the poor condition of their hinges. As explained earlier, the zinc-based alloys were soft metals, excellent for casting, but not really hard enough to support the weighty hinged lids. Nevertheless, these wonderful antique art metal jewel boxes were much treasured, and they held their popularity well until World War I, when the continuity of fashion was broken, re-directing interest from the decorative to the function and power of the machine.
Joanne Wiertella is a major collector of antique American jewel boxes. After her first discovery nearly 20 years ago, she developed a passion for collecting them, and later began researching their origins. She has recently published a book on these lovely American art metal novelties which pictures her collection of 500+ jewel boxes: The Jewel Box Book: The Definitive Guide to American Art Metal Jewelry Boxes 1900-1925. Inside the full-color, 208 page book is a wide selection of information including: styles (Art Nouveau, Victorian, Rococo, Revival); manufacturers; floral and other motifs pictured and explained; metal composition and finishes; period advertising; trademarks, patents, and copyrights.
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