Throughout history, jewelry boxes were constructed and designed by craftsmen, one box at a time. With the Industrial Revolution came the concept of mass production, avidly adopted in the United States during the late 19th century. For the first time, objects like jewelry boxes, could be cast in quantity, less costly to produce. And, there was now a Middle Class in america, able to purchase decorative items, not just the essentials.
American ladies of the early 1900s aspired to the high style of great cities like London and Paris. Mail order catalogs, Sears, Wards, and Marshall Field, enabled the average family to make purchases from their homes, including jewelry boxes. Jewelry stores also displayed in their windows the latest designs purchased from wholesalers. Jewel boxes were available in all sizes, from the smallest ring box to handkerchief and even glove sized boxes. Their bottoms could be a beautiful as the tops.
Jewel Cases, caskets, and trinket boxes were classified as Art Metal Wares, and were plated in gold, silver, copper or ivory. A popular misconception is that there was iron in the metal. The most common base metals for jewel boxes were actually spelter or antimonial lead. Almost all alloys used were of metals with low melting points, explaining the broken hinges often seen today.
Manufacturers experimented with many finishes. Most jewel boxes were first electroplated with copper, then finished with gold or silver. Other refinements were French Bronze, Roman Gold, Pompeian Gold, French Gray, Parisian Silver. Around 1911, ivory finishes were introduced, achieved by painting with white enamel, then applying various oxides, resulting in Old Ivory, Oriental Ivory, Old antique Ivory, and Tinted Ivory. Enamel finished boxes were more lasting than gold or silver boxes.
Jewel boxes were lined with fine pale-colored silks from Japan and China, also with faille, satin or sateen, and were often trimmed with twisted satin cord. Some boxes were lined with velvet in brighter colors.
International trade and travel drew attention to decorative styles all over the world. For example, the Classical styles, the Victorian Period, Art Nouveau from France, and world discoveries like the Egyptian tombs. And Americans began to reflect on their own history, with a renewed interest in its Colonial days. All was reflected in Jewel Boxes.
The most prominent decorative style of jewel box during the early 1900s was Art Nouveau, a romantic style noted for its flowing, asymmetrical lines, with motifs relating to nature. Most today associate Art Nouveau with graceful nymph-like young women, but floral motifs held a major place in the American Nouveau jewelry box world. the Language of Flowers was a popular concept during the Victorian Period. so, floral sentiments were reflected in the Nouveau style on jewelry boxes, the four-leaf-clover for good luck, daisies for innocence, roses for love and beauty, and so on.
There were several American Art Metal manufacturers that designed and produced jewel boxes. For example, Jennings Brothers, Kronheimer and Oldenbusch, Benedict, NB Rogers, The Art Metal Works, Brainard and Wilson which patented one of the first Nouveau jewel box designs, and Weidlich Brothers which took several patents on their Colonial designs.
Many of these manufacturers trademarked or signed their jewel boxes. However, Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward implied in their early catalogs that they were the manufacturer supplying the merchandise. They did not was trademark on some items they sold. So. one may find two identical jewel boxes, one with a signature, another without.
Peak production lasted fewer than 15 years, 1904-1918, but the term Mass Production held a completely different meaning then than it does today. Gold and silver finished boxes were the most common. The silver boxes have not fared well, unless actually silver-plated, a rare find. Also rare are souvenir jewel boxes with commemorative ceramic or photo discs. The ivory finished boxes, though somewhat later in development, remain elusive. Their finishes were more durable, so they may still be handed down within families.
These wonderful antique jewel boxes were much valued, and they held their popularity well until World War I, when the continuity of fashion was broken, re-directing interest from decorative to the function and power of the machine. Fortunately, we can still discover examples of the almost-100-year old treasures.
Further information about antique American jewelry boxes may be found in THE JEWEL BOX BOOK.