CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Collector's Guide: Bird Boxes

8 minute read

Frères Rochat Petit Swiss Singing Bird Box

Frères Rochat Petit Swiss Singing Bird Box. Circa 1820.

Sometimes the smallest antiques can be counted among the most luxurious — and charming! The singing bird box is one such object. Masterpieces that fit in the palm of your hand, singing bird boxes bring together the engineering genius of the watchmaker with the cultivated eye of the jeweler. Though their outer casings can vary from unadorned tortoiseshell to gem-encrusted 18K gold, their inner workings are what make these mechanical marvels truly spectacular. Each contains the most intricately constructed mechanisms that not only play music, but power the movements of a miniature automaton bird. When the lid of a bird box lifts and a tiny bird emerges to sing its birdsong, one is inevitably filled with wonder. Read on to learn more about these highly collectible miniature wonders.

Louis XV French Gold Snuffbox by Germain Chayé

Louis XV French Gold Snuffbox by Germain Chayé. Circa 1755.

Brief History

Snuff Boxes

While humans have been creating automata in one form or another for centuries, it is unlikely that the sing bird box would exist as we know it today without the widespread popularity of the snuff box. The "taking of snuff" was a common practice among Europe's upper class beginning in the early 16th century. The habit was a messy affair, which caused sneezing and a blackened nose, and required that one always keep a handkerchief at hand. Nevertheless, the unseemly habit resulted in the creation of some of the era's most elaborate objets d'art — snuff boxes, or tabatière in French. The snuff box served as a fashionable yet functional way to carry one's snuff, and they often served as conversation pieces among the aristocracy. Crafted from all types of materials, including papiér-mâche, silver, gold, pewter, enameled copper, tortoiseshell and horn, they were also often highly decorated. The most extravagant boxes were often exchanged as gifts, and they inevitably became a status symbol among the European elite. These ornate decorative boxes are understandably highly sought-after by collectors, as they represent some of the most luxurious creations of the 17th and 18th century. The singing bird box is an important part of this legacy. They, in part, have the popularity of the snuff box to thank for their existence. The singing bird box closely resembles the snuff box in terms of both size and artistry, but where they differ is in what they contain. Click here to view our collection of rare snuff boxes.

Mechanics

At its most fundamental, every singing bird box shares the same basic features: a mechanical movement, a series of cams, a miniature bird automaton and an ornamental case. The movement, either fusée or going barrel, is responsible for powering the box, while the cams convert this energy into the vertical motion of the bird. The bird itself — hand-feathered with authentic hummingbird plumes — is an engineering marvel and often the most complicated part of the box. Finally, the case that contains the mechanical wonder within was made from an array of luxury materials, from gold and silver to tortoiseshell and porcelain.

Operation of a Fusée Movement

Operation of a Fusée Movement

Fusée Movements Versus Going-Barrel Movements

Early Swiss singing bird boxes, created from 1785 until about 1865, contain the rare and highly sought-after fusée movement. The design of the fusée movement is nothing short of genius. It utilizes both a flat, polished mainstay barrel and a conical, or fusée, barrel. When the movement is wound, the chain wraps around the conical fusée wheel. Then, when the bird box is activated, this chain gradually unwinds from the fusée, from top to bottom, to be wound on the mainstay barrel. The elongated chain allowed the bird to sing longer and the animation to be more lifelike. All of the great Swiss makers employed a fusée-driven movement without exception, but later French and German models more typically employed the slightly less complex going-barrel movement. This type of movement drives the mechanism by a ring of teeth around the barrel.

Swiss Gold Singing Bird Box

Swiss Gold Singing Bird Box. Circa 1830.

Important Makers

Pierre Jaquet-Droz

The invention of the bird box is attributed to Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, and first appeared in Geneva during the last quarter of the 18th century. His creation had first been utilized in larger-scale “bird cages” sometime between 1770 and 1784, but when he successfully created a miniaturized version of his pipe-organ mechanism circa 1785, the era of the singing bird box began. The years leading up to its creation must have been a time of great activity for Jaquet-Droz. In 1774, the three most complex and enchanting automata ever made were unveiled: The Writer, The Musician and The Draughtsman. Several makers, including Jaquet-Droz, were creating singing birdcages during this period. By 1785, tabatiére-sized bird boxes were known to have existed, thanks to the work of a small group of men in Geneva led by Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his son Henri. Today, these early bird boxes by Jaquet-Droz are among the most complex and highly coveted to be found.

Jacob Frisard

Jacob Frisard is another important name in the early history of singing bird boxes. What set Frisard’s boxes apart from any other maker was his unique ability to design and cut the cam set in a continuous spiral. This unique feature resulted in a continuous birdsong, with no breaks occurring from beginning to end. It was never repeated by any other bird-box maker, though the feature is seen in the boxes of the Jaquet-Droz family and Frères Rochat, who used Frisard’s cam sets almost exclusively. Because Frisard primarily worked as a maker of parts for Jaquet-Droz and Rochat, singing bird boxes that are 100% attributed to him are exceptionally rare and hard to find.

Frères Rochat Tortoiseshell Singing Bird Box

Frères Rochat Tortoiseshell Singing Bird Box. Circa 1830.

Frères Rochat

The Rochat family of bird-box makers were originally employed by the Jaquet-Droz firm before striking out on their own in 1804 to make a name for themselves in Geneva. Masterful technicians, the Rochats quickly became famous for perfecting highly complicated singing-bird mechanisms placed in decorative boxes, cages and even mirrors. The sons of master watchmaker David Rochat, the three brothers — Jacques François Elisée Rochat, David Frédéric Henri Rochat and Henri Samuel Rochat — worked in the tradition of Jaquet-Droz until 1849. Today, the name Rochat is universally acclaimed, emblematic of quality and meticulous workmanship.

Silver and Enamel Fuseé Singing Bird Box by Charles Bruguier

Silver and Enamel Fuseé Singing Bird Box by Charles Bruguier. Circa 1860.

Bruguier

The last of the great Swiss makers of the singing bird box working during this period was the Bruguier family, with Charles Bruguier at its head. A brilliant mechanic, Bruguier is responsible for a number of improvements on the original designs of Jaquet-Droz, not the least of which included the extension of the bird's performance. They also recognized the bird box as an important commodity and effectively produced them at a lower cost to suit the tastes of the voracious European upper classes clamoring to own their very own singing treasures.

Bontems 1910 Catalogue

Bontems 1910 Catalogue

Blaise Bontems

The Rochats and Bruguiers were no doubt the last representatives of the great tradition of bird boxes in Geneva. However, the art of the singing bird box evolved further in France with clock and automaton master Blaise Bontems. Established in 1815, his business would continue until the 1950s through his son Charles Jules and grandson Lucien. They were the first to replace the complicated fusée movement with a more simplified going-barrel movement. Though less complex, it retained the lifelike resonances of the fusée, leading the Bontems family to be known as the “fathers” of the modern singing bird box. Delightful, unique and mechanically complex, it is no wonder that singing bird boxes were once the exclusive luxury of kings and nobility. So before assuming bigger is better this holiday season, don’t forget to explore these minute masterpieces. The joy and wonder they bring will last for years to come. Click here to view our current collection of singing bird boxes. References: C. and S. Bailly. Mechanical Singing Birds: Flights of Fancy. Antiquorum Editions. 2001. G.T. Mayson. Mechanical Singing-Bird Tabatières. Clerkenwell House, London. 2000.

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