Today, as with so many other things, the impulse has gone to extremes: there’s a trend for jewellery “islands” in some of the world’s most lavish walk-in wardrobes. And yet, even for many of those who would theoretically be in the position to give over most of the square footage of a (temperature-controlled, keypad-secured) room to display their jewels, it’s impossible to imagine doing away with the classic jewellery box.
“It’s such an important aspect of the experience of jewellery: it’s all about the intimacy, the magic of the reveal,” says Nigel O’Reilly, the high jeweller based in Ireland’s Co. Mayo, whose extraordinary, avant-garde art jewels have featured in Sotheby’s important jewels auction and increasingly appear on the red carpet. O’Reilly, who considers the underside of his pieces as carefully as the parts the world sees, collaborates with fellow Irish master craftsman, Donegal’s Ciaran McGill, The Veneerist, who creates intricate one-off wooden marquetry boxes to complement O’Reilly’s bespoke designs.
“Each box is an interpretation of the jewel, articulated in another material, and it reinforces the ‘mood’ of that particular piece,” explains O’Reilly. “The beauty of the design – along with that wonderful click of the key turning slowly in the lock – creates a moment of anticipation, embedding the emotion of the jewellery even further. Each time you go to the box, you should get that same feeling.”
And of course, there’s no getting away from the powerful allure of tradition – one of the oldest ones we have. Excavations in the 1920s and ’30s uncovered numerous jewellery caskets in the Egyptian tombs. They were buried near the head, which speaks not only to their function as symbols of power, influence and identity but also to their cultural and spiritual significance, and the relative value of jewels on the journey to the afterlife. While some were simple wooden chests (New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds an extraordinary collection, with examples dating as far back as 2000BC), others were richly decorated – a sign of things to come.
In Renaissance Italy, the box was a place to secure all the family’s jewels in one place – invested with extraordinary detail befitting their status and the aesthetic values of the time, often depicting betrothal scenes. Among the wealthy and influential families of Florence they formed part of a bride’s dowry. By the 18th century, the Georgians were doing beautiful things with ring boxes and elaborately enamelled tiered drawers; while in France, the concept of the high-society jewellery box had grown – literally: Marie Antoinette’s opulent “serre-bijoux” occupied a whole alcove beside her bed at Versailles (her husband’s was almost as big). In 1796, Swiss watchmaker Antoine Favre-Salomon figured out and patented a musical mechanism small enough to embed in a watch, considered the first “comb” music box, paving the way for a musical jewellery-box boom.
With the 19th century came the golden age of the jewellery box: the tradition became more widespread as the industrial revolution made jewellery itself more accessible, and the concept of collecting developed. They reverted to a more bijoux form – small, sometimes even pocket-sized – and the "trinket box” emerged, still beautifully lined in silk or velvet, and imbued with all the romance and sentimentality we’ve come to associate with the Victorian era.
For those with a leaning towards antique and vintage jewellery, the option to align one’s jewellery box with a preferred era or sensibility is very much alive – be it Art Deco, Victorian, or 1950s-style. Specialist traders such as Portobello Road’s Michael Barham, 40 years’ sourcing and restoring 18th- and 19th-century examples, are the first call.
Jewellery storage then evolved hand in hand with travel bags (the first modern “handbags") in the 19th century, explains Rachel Koffsky, international head of handbags at Christie’s: "As modes of transportation such as the car and train made travel more widespread, luggage, handbags and jewellery cases emerged as not only necessary objects but also sophisticated luxury goods and symbols of wealth and taste,” she says. “Jewellery cases were created by the luggage makers of the time including Hermès, where you could purchase a handbag with a locked jewellery case in the base of the bag, called a sac malette – a marriage of function and fashion.” They became bound to the idea of women going places – on their own terms.
After a period of austerity during the First World War, the jewellery box bounced back, becoming more important than ever because costume jewellery was now in the mix – so protective features such as drawers and delineated areas that prevented grazing and kept metals apart were the order of the day. Luxury luggage purveyors, from Louis Vuitton to Globe Trotter, still make them, leather-upholstered, sturdy and safe as houses – while a number of elegant little portable designs have sprung up (see Sophie Bille Brahe’s gorgeous plush velvet boxes, with four compartments, in an extensive palette).
Today, some jewellery lovers still only ever use a container when they’re on the move – including Louisa Guinness, the gallerist and art-jewellery expert. “I live with my jewellery out, because it’s always coming on and off,” she explains. Each of the pieces she designs in collaboration with artists for her eponymous London gallery is presented with a little plinth. “It gives them a second life, in a sense; they become a sculpture too.” She harbours ambitions to “design the mother of all jewellery boxes – one day”, to work around the large art-jewels, but in the meantime admits a weakness for diamond jeweller Jessica McCormack’s unapologetically sentimental “heirloom boxes”.
The New Zealand-born, London-based “jewellery obsessive” definitely shifted the status quo when she introduced her refurbished antique wooden caskets in 2018. Their vibrant velvet interiors are embroidered with whimsical motifs that marry tradition with a refreshing modernity. While they can be made fully bespoke, themes in the collection – “a ramble through the British countryside” or “cosmic” or “pop culture” – play to the idea, McCormack explains, that there’s “a little universe inside”. The narrative feel really enhances the personality of the jewellery inside (some of which can come with the box) and speaks to the autobiographical significance of a collection made over time. They are finished off with a silk-tasselled key and engraved brass plaque.
“I’ve always collected little objects to store my pieces in overnight… even on the desk in my office I’ve got all these little trays where my precious things live when I’m not wearing them,” McCormack explains.
“My father was an antiques dealer, so I definitely get this love of objects from him. This is where the idea came from. Jewellery should be utterly loved, and really worn, and when it’s not being worn it should be stored lovingly. It’s joyful and experiential – jewellery boxes do so much more than serve a purpose, they celebrate it.”
Whatever the aesthetic, the emotional value of jewellery makes these containers one of our most deeply personal possessions, connected to our memories and our sense of self. They do, after all, usually sit on a dressing table and are part of the reflected image. That personal link, along with the association with secrets, perhaps love letters, in hidden compartments, makes the jewellery boxes of notable women prized objets and with significant collectible value.
“The fact that it’s a highly personal item resonates with collectors when a jewellery box has belonged to someone well known,” says Adrian Hume-Sayer, director of specialist, private and iconic collections for Christie’s London, citing sales he looked after, the collections of Audrey Hepburn and Margaret Thatcher. “Almost exact contemporaries, they were born within just a few years of each other and although their lives took very different trajectories, they went on to become two of the most famous women of the 20th century. When their jewellery cases came up at auction, they did incredibly well.” One of the two examples belonging to Hepburn – a c.1970, tiered, white leatherette piece lined in red velvet with articulated trays and a tiny mirror, estimated at £1,000-£1,500 – achieved £21,250 despite being what Hume-Sayer calls “a relatively modest object”.
That said, some of the most desirable contemporary boxes are the most exuberant. São Paulo-based jeweller Silvia Furmanovich’s extraordinary marquetry boxes, like her jewellery, draw on a world of exotic and elaborate influences, unusual materials and complex techniques. But rather than having the vibrant detail on the inside, like McCormack’s, these pieces are highly decorative on the outside, intriguing objets in their own right.
Furmanovich works with a master craftsman who lives deep in the rainforest in Northern Brazil, collecting wood that has already fallen and slicing and treating it to achieve the extraordinary colours in her designs. No dyes or pigments are used. “It’s a very secretive process that has its roots in the 16th century; it involves burning the wood, sometimes using sand and other natural materials to create chemical reactions and therefore different shades,” she explains. “The themes are never really planned as such – if I like an aesthetic, I just pull a thread and get really obsessed with it; somehow it just happens,” she says.
Fashion designer Domenico Dolce commissioned her to create a box depicting a saint, an image that’s close to his heart and his collections; others have been inspired by Renaissance artists or the Japanese obi and lined with silks. Increasingly – and particularly since the Covid 19 pandemic began – Furmanovich says clients are more deeply invested in the process and committed to understanding the stories behind the pieces.
“If you’re going to give it that important, emotional role, where everything the jewels mean to you gets somehow absorbed into the box, it should also be appreciated as a work of art, precious in its own right. If jewellery is an extension of yourself, then a jewellery box can be, too.”