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The Intrigue of the Jewelry Box, Stories Behind 4,000 Years of History

The Intrigue of the Jewelry Box

My mother’s jewelry boxes, one green leather, one oxblood leather sat on her mahogany dresser as enticing and mysterious as the back alley behind our apartment building. While my mother was at work and I had come home from school, let myself in with the hidden key, and making sure that I was alone I would take these boxes to the floor of her bedroom and look at each piece as if they were tarot cards, able to show me the past and maybe the future. It was the past I was interested in since my mom was a private person, keeping her secrets to herself. This ritual made me feel closer to her and inspired my own stories of her living in New York and Chicago where I was born.

Red Leather Vintage Jewelry Box

In 2005 my home in the Hollywood Hills was robbed. Sadly the only things that were taken were my mother’s leather jewelry boxes filled with the vintage costume jewelry I had collected over many years and the bits and pieces of her jewelry that remained. I still mourn losing the small Bulova watches she had worn and the fabulous rhinestone star pin that was always worn at Christmas. Those jewelry boxes filled with rhinestone jewelry were the only objects I had inherited from my mom. Beyond sentimental.

And so begins this story about the intrigue of the jewelry box.

One thing that I’m certain of is that most women and young girls own a jewelry box. Where else to keep safe our special bijoux (don’t you just love that word?), the first boyfriend ring, the communion cross necklace, the sacred mandala, our mother’s and grandmother’s heirlooms, our first pearls? It’s the box you would grab, if it was safe, before running out the door during an emergency. I can still remember how sad I was when my little musical ballerina finally slowed her pirouette to a little jerking motion on my first velvet lined jewelry box. It seemed so fancy.

Little did I know that my musical spinning ballerina jewelry box was invented In 1796 by Antoine Favre. Favre had designed a tuned-steel comb that made music boxes smaller. This invention was a lovely addition to jewelry boxes in the nineteenth century, featuring singing birds and beautiful inlaid chests.

Vintage Ballerina Musical Jewelry Box

The jewelry box below was handmade in San Francisco (circa 1976) and given to me by my first true love with whom I am still great friends. Now, this beautiful stained glass box holds the gemstones that I use in my jewelry designs. It is one of my most precious treasures and has traveled with me from city to city for many years.

Vintage Stained Glass Jewelry Box from San Francisco

Did you know that jewelry boxes date as early as 2000 BC in Ancient Egypt? Most Egyptians, men and women, wore jewelry. Since the Egyptians preferred metal was gold, frequently studded with precious gemstones, they needed a secure place to store their jewelry before taking it with them to their eternal resting place in the tombs.

 During the Renaissance in Florence it was customary for the bride to have a dowry and she would be presented with a jewelry box and a larger cassoni (dowry chest) upon her engagement.Precious box made in carved and gilded walnut wood, Tuscany (Italy) 16th century. This type of gift box was made as a jewelry box, sometimes used to hold wedding gifts, carrying jewels and coins inside.

Along came the roaring twenties following on the heels of WWI, when something as frivolous as a jewelry box was frowned upon. Flappers, fringe, affordable costume jewelry and Coco Chanel made ritual adornment fun and fashionable. Women felt empowered to purchase their own jewelry and of course needed a special place to keep it all safely tucked away.

Important Byzantine Style Brooch, Property of Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel working at her desk

How exquisitely fabulous and elite is this travel case below from Hermès with a locked drawer at the bottom for jewelry.

The "Malette" is a classic handbag made only by the prestigious Parisian firm Hermès. The bag was particularly favored by wealthy women in the 1950s and 1960s who, when traveling, could carry their fine jewelry with them. For added security, the model has a separate locked jewelry compartment in the bottom with two separate locks and key sheath containing keys for each. This example, was owned by Barbara "Babe" Paley and donated to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This bag is now part of my future travel fantasies!

Vintage Hermes Travel Case

Modern jewelry boxes have lost much of their symbolic meaning and tend to lean more towards organization than emotions. The jewelry inside is the keeper of the romantic flame. My own jewelry box is made by the "Wolf1834" company. Wolf1834 has a long and interesting history which you might enjoy reading about here. My box is very nice with drawers and compartments to separate things and keep them from scratching one another. I would be a liar if I said my box was pristine but at best I separate my fine jewelry from my costume! This photo is my jewelry box as it looked when new! Of course all of the jewelry that I make for you is very carefully tucked away in my safe 😊

Wolf1834 Red Leather Jewelry Box

Should your taste and your pocketbook long for a jewelry box that is out of this world take at look at the boxes at 1stDib and have a lovely day fantasizing about the incredible compacts, snuff boxes and jewelry cases that are offered.

This vintage, 18k solid gold box from Tiffany will set you back a cool $51,000 💕

Solid 18k Gold Jewelry Box from Tiffany

Or you may prefer this hand carved Bowenite box embellished with rubies and diamonds from Faberge (circa 1900) a bargain at $36,283! 

Bowenite box with rubies and diamond from Faberge

Well then, we have jewels that symbolize our precious feelings, whether they are valuable or not, they are priceless to our hearts. ... The meaning of a jewelry box is safekeeping. When you open your jewelry box, you can also open up your memories. The best part of designing and making jewelry are the infinite possibilities of creating new memories.

Rings designed by Jane Bartel Jewelry

What’s in your jewelry box? I would love to read comments about your jewelry box stories and please visit me at janebarteljewelry.com