In 1762, Queen Charlotte received an elaborately decorated amboyna, rosewood, tulipwood and ivory veneered mahogany jewellery box made by William Vile. The box was always kept in her bedroom, where she would occasionally allow her favourite ladies-in-waiting to look at it and its contents; ‘nothing could be more superb, more dazzling,’ wrote Fanny Burney, the Second Keeper of the Queen’s Robes.
There’s no doubt that Queen Charlotte was the owner of an impressive collection of magnificent jewels, many of them gifts from the king, and she needed an equally impressive jewellery box in which to store them. For the later years of her reign, Charlotte hardly bothered to remove the jewellery from its box; it was reported that she found ‘the fatigue and trouble of putting them on, and the care they required, and the fear of losing them’ drastically reduced the pleasure she took in wearing them.
For the average woman, though, the jewellery box was actually a necessity; it was the place in which she would keep anything precious such as scissors and smelling salts, letters and sewing implements as well as personal valuables. Before the nineteenth century even women of substance could count on having very little privacy, and such a box may well have been the only place where they could safely store items away from prying eyes – things that belonged to them independently of their marriage, for example.
Having a purpose-made jewellery box was a sign of a woman’s social status; the more elaborate the design, the more elevated the status. Such boxes became far less common with the development of the Industrial Revolution and the concept of mass production, which led to manufacturing of large quantities and at a price that was affordable to the middle classes. Women responded by buying jewellery boxes in droves.
Many of the mass produced jewellery boxes were made using a base metal of antimonial lead or spelter (the use of alloys explains the low survival rate of many of the hinges on these boxes) and plated in gold, silver or ivory. They were usually first electroplated with copper before being finished with gold or silver, and given exotic sounding names such as French Bronze, Roman Gold, Parisian Silver or Pompeian Gold. The ivory finish, which was created by painting with white enamel and applying one of a number of oxides, was first introduced around 1911. These finishes were known varyingly as Oriental Ivory, Old Antique Ivory, Tinted Ivory and Old Ivory. Pale-coloured silks from China and Japan along with satin and sateen were used to line the interior of the boxes.
It might seem obvious, but the first thing to consider when choosing a jewellery box – if it’s to be used – is the collection that you’re planning to put in it. Jewellery should be stored with room between the pieces in order to prevent items rubbing against each other, and for this reason some collectors will keep two jewellery boxes, dividing their gems between them.