Monday, March 28, 2016

Beauty in a Little Box

QUESTION: My favorite aunt left me a beautiful metal jewelry box that looks like tarnished silver. It’s got daisies on it and on the bottom it’s marked “N.B. Rogers.” I know that Rogers Brothers is famous for its silver flatware, but did they also make jewelry boxes? Also, what can you tell me about the design of this box?

ANSWER: Sorry to burst your bubble, but your jewelry box isn’t made of silver. It’s actually white metal, also known as “Britannia” or art metal and dates from the first decade of the 20th century. And the flower on it is a lotus flower, not a daisy.

The creation of mail order catalogs by Marshall Field, Montgomery Ward, Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Macy's in the late 19th century made it possible for the average middle class woman to purchase lovely fashions and accessories at affordable prices.

One of these accessories was the jewelry box—more popularly called the jewel box—a repository for her most precious jewelry and keepsakes. The growth in popularity of these "art metal" jewel boxes, also called jewel caskets or jewel cases, paralleled the growth of catalog shopping which promoted them as ' dainty gifts for Milady." Jewel boxes came in sizes ranging from the smallest ring box to large handkerchief and glove boxes.

Between 1900 and 1910, Art Nouveau, a French term meaning "new art" coined by Maison de 1'Art Nouveau, a Paris gallery which opened in 1895, was the predominant design style in the United States. A romantic style influenced by the art forms of Japan, it used many motifs borrowed from nature, including flowers, leaves, vines, and birds. It also became known for its curves and asymmetrical elements. Of the Art Nouveau jewel boxes produced in the United States, those with the floral motifs were the most popular.

The two most prevalent flowers used on jewel boxes were roses and poppies. Daisies, four-leaf-clovers, lily of the valley, pond lilies, violets, carnations, and a myriad of other flowers also decorated jewel boxes. This maybe due, in part, to the important role flowers played during the Victorian era.

The jewelry trade promoted the “Flower of the Month” concept during the early 1900s. Fueled by consumers’ desire for more decorative objects, the jewelry industry improved production, distribution and marketing methods. Little by little, the role of flowers as a decorative motif became the central theme. Manufacturers assigned specific flowers to birth months, decorating jewel boxes with roses of love for June, carnations for admiration for February, and holly for foresight for December.

The interiors of these jewel boxes were as beautiful as their exteriors. Linings of fine silk, faille, jacquard, and satin gave them a luxurious appearance. Because silk could be easily dyed, it came in a rainbow of colors, although jewel box linings used the pale hues of pink, green, and blue. Manufacturers trimmed trimmed the linings with a fine twisted-silk cording.

During the early part of the 20th century, many American manufacturers produced art metal wares, with jewel boxes being one of their most popular items. Many of these manufacturers have long passed into history but one, Rogers Brothers, still exists today. There were several "Rogers" brothers in business at the turn of the century, and the name gained national recognition due, in large' part, to the wide distribution of mail order catalogs. The name became so popular that other companies tried to adopt it, results in many lawsuits. Though the original Rogers family became known for its flatware, one brother, N. Burton Rogers; founded his own art metal company and produced many Art Nouveau jewel boxes marked “N.B. Rogers.”.

By 1915, the popularity of art metal jewel boxes had reached its peak: With the coming of World War I, production slowed. The earlier naturalistic, yet interpretive Art Nouveau flowers, leaves, and vines, had become "conventional" floral decoration. By 1925, the production of art metal jewel boxes had ceased altogether.

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