You are holding a small and delicate box in your hand. The lid is decorated with a miniature painting of a singing bird perched on a tree branch. It looks like it is made of porcelain and has a metal jointed closure. The inside mirror on the back of the lid is clouded from age. You recognize beauty in this small treasure. What you don’t know is how old it is? Who made it? Where it was made? And what it was used for?
Well, it turns out you are holding an English enameled patch box. The box was probably made circa 1760 in south Staffordshire. It is made of copper to which enamel has been applied, then hand painted with a miniature. The mirror is for the user to look at the spot on his or her face where the patch would be applied. Many collectors would refer to the box as a Battersea patch box. This article attempts to show how to identify such items and estimate their value.
English patch box, Circa 1760, enamel on brass, decorated with a miniature painting of a singing bird on a fence, has the words “Esteem the Giver”, cracks in the enamel, clouded mirror, dimensions 1 5/8” x 1 3/8” x 7/8”, unmarked, Auction hammer price $240.00
Enameling as a Jewelry making technique
Enameling, the technique of fusing glass to metal backing, is an old art form used over the ages to create beautiful jewelry and objects of virtu. The enameling technique consists of applying a glass paste to a metal, then firing or heating the piece in an oven. The resulting glass-like material can then be further decorated by painting over it. Other decorating methods use different colored enamels to make a design, using either the Cloisonné or Champlevé technique. These two techniques are the oldest enameling methods and were used in ancient Egypt and Greece to make gorgeous pieces of jewelry. The Romans, Greeks and Byzantines also used them to make ornamental pieces for use by the nobility.
Russian trinket box, circa late 1800s, enamel on silver, colorful cloisonné floral design, marked PIK, St. Petersburg assay marks, and 84, dimensions 2”x2”x1/2”, retail price $400-500.
In more modern times other techniques, such as miniature painting and plique-a-jour enameling, were developed to create the beautiful seventeenth century boxes and jewelry using precious metals and stones. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Carl Faberge, the famous Russian jeweler of French decent, and other jewelers used engine turning to create some of the finest examples of enameled boxes.
History of enameling in Europe
In the late 1500s and early 1600s French jewelers began experimenting with enameling and were creating miniature paintings on white enamels fused on gold or silver. Some of the earliest examples came from the Limoges area. Many French jewelers such as Boucher, Jean Moynat, Claude Lorraine and Watteau, were also enamellers. By the early eighteenth century enameled boxes with jewels and hand painted miniatures were among the most treasured objects of virtu in the French court. The jewelers of Paris were making small enameled and jeweled boxes for the aristocracy in the court of Louis XIV. These included patch boxes, toothpick boxes, vinaigrettes, pillboxes, match safes, and etuis. Most common of these were snuffboxes, which reflected the economic as well as the political status of its owner.
English oblong snuffbox, circa late 1700s/early 1800s, enamel on copper, hinged lid hand painted with equestrian racing scene, pale green base, 2 ¼”x1 1/8”x1 1/8”. Unmarked, auction hammer price $400
To collectors of enameled boxes, the French enameled gold box decorated with a miniature painting is the most desirable, the so-called “Holy Grail”. Collectors and connoisseur alike consider the French enameled box as the standard. This is evidenced by the fact that Faberge compared his enameled boxes to the quality of earlier French boxes.
English enameling also has its roots in France. In 1637 Jean Petitot, a French enameller, went to England and introduced the art form. In the mid 1700s the area of south Staffordshire became the center of painted enamel box making. The Battersea factory, which existed from 1753 to 1756, was the first to develop several of the new techniques which allowed mass production of these beauties. Although the word Battersea has become synonymous with this type of box, given its short-lived history, it is likely that most of the enameled boxes currently referred to as Battersea boxes are not. However, these were all generally made in Staffordshire or in Birmingham. Thus the patch box discussed earlier was probably made in south Staffordshire but not in the Battersea manufactory.
Staffordshire boxes were made as cheap imitations to the French enameled boxes. The initial production in the mid to late 1700s was of significantly higher quality than later enamels. Hammering metal sheets to form boxes was the method originally used to make blank metal boxes. However, in the late 1700s casting or machine stamping was invented and mass production became the norm. Casting also made it possible to develop the figural box, which was then enameled. Such boxes are very desirable and highly thought after by collector. Box shapes included fruits, animals, and human heads, among others.
In the early 1800s, the Staffordshire box makers made their second contribution to mass production of boxes. This was to decorate the box lid by transferring a drawing to the enameled surface. In this method, the blanks were dipped in a paste of enamel and the box underwent the first firing. Once the enameled box emerged from the firing, a design was applied or transferred to the blank using a print to lay the outline on the enamel. This outline was then hand colored and the box underwent a second firing. This type of box is still in production. An example is the Halcyon Days Enamels, produced by Bilston & Battersea Enamels. These modern boxes are very desirable and highly collectible. They are usually commemorative in nature, marked with the manufacturer’s name, and are dated. On the other hand, old English enamel boxes were usually unmarked and unsigned, making attribution a difficult task.
Russian enamellers used three different methods of enameling, cloisonné, nielo and guilloche. The cloisonné method was used as early as the tenth century. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century the nielo method was introduced. Finally, in the late 1800s and early 1900s Carl Faberge used the engine-turned or guilloche technique to create beautiful enameled boxes. Both nielo and engine turning were used by the Russians to decorate mostly cigarette boxes and cases.
Continental rectangular cigarette box Lavender Guilloche, circa late 1800s, Enamel over engine turned concentric circles. Hinged and latched lid. Gold wash inside, dimensions 3½”x2”x7/16”, Makers Mark S.T. inside, retail price $450-600.
Swiss jewelers are also known for making beautiful boxes with miniatures on enameled gold. These boxes typically date from the early 1800s and rival the French boxes of the same vintage in their quality and beauty. However, the enameled gold music box with singing birds that pop out of the lid are, in my opinion, what defines Swiss enameled box. These are pieces of art and have a mechanism that rivals that which can be found in the best Swiss watch.
Today, enameling is still used extensively by many European and Russian artisans for making beautiful jewelry, boxes and modern objects of virtu.
Differentiating box origins
French gold and silver enameled boxes usually have a maker’s mark as well as an assay mark. Assay marks were impressed on an inconspicuous part of the box, usually on the inside lip, by a government official to indicate that the box is indeed of the precious metal at the proper assay. These marks also allow the collector to identify the jeweler, and date of the box by researching the marks using the appropriate references.
French enameled boxes made in the era of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI were normally decorated with rococo decorations, and reflected the decadence of the French aristocracy, which ended with the French revolution. The rococo style miniatures usually depicted men and women courting and in compromising positions within a pastoral scene, sometimes with sheep in the background.
In contrast, English enamel boxes from the same era were much more reserved. These boxes were usually decorated with miniatures of animals, birds, castles, hunting, equestrian, or maritime scenes. They would have a simple floral or foliate design and plain writing, as opposed to the French boxes, which had none. The message, written on the lid, reflected the fact that they were gifts. Typical messages were “A trifle for a friend,” “This and the giver are thine forever” or “Esteem the giver”. Staffordshire and Birmingham boxes from the eighteenth century are very difficult to attribute since they were normally unmarked.
Russians enameled boxes are often decorated using the cloisonné technique to render a colorful floral design. These boxes have a maker’s mark in the Cyrillic alphabet as well as an assay mark. Nielo enameling was normally used for cigarette cases, and were decorated with scenes of buildings or the ubiquitous troika (three horse drawn carriage). More modern Russian boxes are engine turned and are again marked with a maker’s mark in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Known plique-a-jour boxes from the eighteenth century normally originated in Austria. On the other hand, bright silver champlevé boxes with cobalt blue enameling, central neo-classical miniature, and marked 800 silver are made in Italy. While similarly decorated boxes marked Sterling Silver are made in Austria. These boxes normally have the country of origin stamped inside.
Prices of enameled boxes
Eighteenth century French boxes are very difficult to come by and normally examples that come up at auction fetch very high prices. In a recent auction a French enamel-on-gold oval snuffbox measuring 3 ½” by ~2” and less than 1” deep, decorated with a miniature portrait of a lady realized $13,500, excluding the buyer’s premium.
French Vinaigrette, circa late 1700s, enamel on silver, decorated with rococo scenes on front and back of couple in compromising position, foliate decorated grill, dimensions 1” diameter ½” deep, retail price $800-1000.
On the other hand, French enamels on silver or brass are more reasonable in price. A late 1700s enamel-on-silver vinaigrette, with a miniature of a courting scene retails for $800- $1000, while an enamel-on-silver patch box, with a rococo scene from the same era retails for $350-$500. The quality of the artwork, the size of the miniature, and of course condition has a large impact on the price.
Contemporary English enameled boxes retail for about $100- $200, while old Battersea-type boxes range in price from $250 to $1,600 depending on size, condition and illustration. Maritime, equestrian, and ballooning scenes usually command a premium and sell in the range of $400 to $600. Portraits of known historical figures always command a very large premium no matter who the maker is or where it was made.
Russian enamel boxes made by well-known names such as Faberge’s work master Henrik Wigstrom command a premium. Faberge is probably one of the most famous makers of engine turned enameled boxes. His cigarette boxes made in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s are prized collectibles worldwide. A silver engine-turned enameled cigarette case bearing the Faberge name would normally sell for over $10,000 in a well-advertised auction. Having the name of one of his work masters on it would increase the price.
Austrian plique-a-jour boxes made of silver where only the hinged lid is enameled retail for somewhere between $1,200- $1,600. Plique-a-jour is not the best technique for boxes, since a box is an enclosed shape, which does not allow light to shine freely through it. This technique lends itself very well to earrings and large bowls. Jewelry using the plique-a-jour technique was made by Lalique.
An Italian silver compact, marked 800, with champlevé cobalt blue enameling and a neo-classical miniature on the lid, gold gilt on the interior and a mirror realizes $450 to $800 in auctions, depending on size and condition.
Austria Lady’s rectangular compact, circa late 1800s/early 1900s, enamel on sterling silver, hinged lid with Champlevé decoration in cobalt blue, central miniature in neoclassic/rococo style of a courting scene. Sides and bottom have cobalt blue enameling. Dimensions 3¼” x 2”x 7/16”. Hallmarked and has maker’s mark inside, retail price $800-1000
These beautiful treasures are becoming difficult to come by and command a premium when they do appear in auctions, especially if the enamel is intact. Cracks or breaks in the enamel result in a considerably lower price. Condition of all enamel boxes is a major factor in pricing. Remember these boxes were used extensively by their owners and were prone to damage. Finding a 300-year-old enamel box, which has not been damaged or repaired is worth a premium price. Repairs are also a detriment to the value of enamels of the object. When acquiring an enameled box beware of changes in color or shades of color within a given area; this could be an indication of repair.
Collecting enameled objects in general and enameled boxes in particular is a very popular hobby and in my opinion will continue to be. The fact that these boxes are very pleasing aesthetically makes them highly desirable by collectors and since they are fragile they are becoming rarer due to loss, thus will always hold their value over time. Moreover, reasonably priced contemporary enameled boxes and inexpensive reproductions of antique ones make it easy for novices to enter the hobby thus expanding the interest.
- Cloisonné: Enameling technique in which metal strips are soldered to a metal base creating small compartments (Cloisons). The cloisons were made into floral or other designs and then filled with enamels of different colors and fired. The metal strips kept the different colors from mixing.
- Champlevé (French meaning raised field): Enameling technique in which the metal is carved with a design and then the crevasses in the metal surface are filled with enamel and fired. The holes in the surface prevented the various colors from mixing.
- Engine Turned (Guilloche): In this technique a geometric design with repeating pattern is mechanically engraved on the surface of the metal then transparent enamel is applied, which shows the pattern under it and creates the desired effect.
- Etui: Small box fitted with compartments to hold sewing implements or beauty needs for ladies. It is also referred to as necessaire (necessary).
- Nielo: A Russian method of enameling in which the surface of silver is engraved with a design, filled with a black glassy powder (gun powder) and then fired and smoothed. Objects of Virtu: Handmade small objects made of precious metals/materials.
- Plique-a-jour: In this enameling technique cloisones are made without a metal base. The various cloisones are filled with different colored enamels and fired. The translucent enamels without backing gave the effect of stained glass.
- Patch Box: Small box equipped with a mirror (Earliest Lady’s compact) to hold patches.
- Susan Benjamin, English Enamel Boxes- From the 18th to the 20th Century, Macdonald & Co. Publishers, Ltd. London, UK 1978
- Henry and Sidney Berry-Hill, Antique Gold Boxes, Their Lore and Their Lure, Abelard Press, NY 1953
- Clare le Corbeiller, European and American Snuff Boxes “1720-1830, The Viking Press, NY 1966.
- C. Bernard Hughes, English Snuff-Boxes, Mac Gibbon & Kee, London, UK 1971
- John Bedford, All Kinds of Small Boxes, Walker and Company, NY 1964
- Marian Klamkin, The Collector’s Book of Boxes, Dod, Mead & Company, NY 1970
- Brian Cole, Collecting for Tomorrow “Boxes”, BPC Publishers, Ltd. UK 1976