Gold Boxes: Dazzling Treasures That Desired by Stylish Men or Women in the 18th Century Europe

In the 18th century, boxes were produced in large numbers in European countries. Gold boxes were considered essential for any stylish man or woman as they symbolised the refined taste and superior status of the wealthy aristocrats. They were presented as gifts to friends and lovers, and by monarchs to ambassadors and courtiers.

A Swiss Jewelled Enamelled Musical Gold Snuff-Box with Automaton. The Box by Guidon, Gide & Blondet Fils (Fl. 1801-1804), Marked, Geneva, Circa 1804. Estimate: HK$850,000-1,300,000 (US$108,949-166,628)

Most of the boxes were used to hold snuff, or powered tobacco. Tobacco had first come to Europe from the New World in the late 16th century. Praised by doctors and encyclopaedists for its benefit to preserve sight and smell, tobacco soon became a recreational drug. Snuff was popularised in the second half of the 17th century, especially among the elite. It led to the use of snuff box, which became known as tabatière, a word derived from the French for tobacco.

A German Enamelled Vari-Colour Gold Snuff-Box. Probably Esaias Fernau & Compagnie, Marked, Hanau, Circa 1780. Estimate: HK$320,000-550,000 (US$41,016-70,496)

By the 18th century, the gold snuff-box was the height of functional fashion. Gold snuffboxes – which have a tight-fitting lid to ensure that the snuff within remains fresh – were an important part of this ritual that was popular throughout the courts, salons, and elite circles of Europe.

A French Gold-Mounted Wood and Lacquer Snuff-Box by Adrien-Jean-Maximilien Vachette, (Fl. 1779-1839), Marked, Paris, 1789. Estimate: HK$320,000-550,000 (US$41,016-70,496)

In addition to its functional purpose, these gold boxes embody the craftsmanship of goldsmiths, jewellers, and miniature portrait painters of the era. These gold boxes come in various forms and decoration, with different materials used alongside gold, from porcelain to precious stones, enamel and mother-of-pearl.

An Austrian Vari-colour Gold and Porcelain Snuff-box. The Box, Possibly Vienna, Circa 1780. Estimate: HK$55,000-85,000 (US$7,050-10,895)

They became fashionable accessories that were sought-after even by people who hated snuff, like King Louis XIV of France. He developed a the boîte-à-portrait – a snuff-box but featured a portrait miniature either within it or mounted on its cover – as a gift of honour.

Boîte à portrait of Louis XIV

Besides the boîte-à-portrait, there are other styles of box that derived from tabatière. Here are some examples.

An Important Saxon Gold and Hardstone Bonbonnière By Johann-christian Neuber (1736-1808), Circa 1780. Estimate: HK$3,200,000-5,200,000 (US$410,160-666,510)

A German Silver-gilt Mounted Hardstone Bonbonnière. Probably Berlin, Circa 1760. Estimate: HK$42,000-65,000 (US$5,383-8,331)

Bonbonnières are circular boxes with detachable covers used to hold confectionery, such as dried fruit or nuts.

A Louis Xv-style Enamelled Gold Étui. 19th Century. Estimate: HK$32,000-55,000 (US$4,102-7,050)

Étui is a general term for an upright container designed to hold a specific object such as a needle or bodkin.

A Swiss Jewelled Enamelled Musical Gold Necessaire Set With a Watch and an Automaton. Geneva, Circa 1830. Estimate: HK$650,000-850,000 (US$83,314-108,949)

Nécessaire was designed to hold implements relating to sewing or personal grooming, such as small scissors, tweezers, toothpicks and folding knives.

A Louis Xvi Double-opening Enamelled Vari-colour Gold Boîte-à-mouches by Charles Le Bastier (Fl. 1754-1783), Marked, Paris, 1776/1777. Estimate: HK$220,000-320,000 (US$28,198-41,016)

Boîte-à-mouches are boxes that contained small patches (‘mouches’) of various shapes and sizes. These were applied to the faces of ladies or gentlemen to hide smallpox scars, or for decoration.

In the coming autumn sales, Christie’s is going to present the first Gold Boxes sale in Asia on 25 November, featuring 75 lots of jewelled gold boxes.

Auction summary

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: Gold Boxes
Date: 25 November 2018|4pm
Lots offered: 75