Gold boxes

Gold boxes were among the supreme luxuries of 18th-century Europe, essential for any stylish man or woman.

Most were used to hold snuff (powdered tobacco), although some held small sweets or bonbons. They were presented as gifts to friends and lovers, and by monarchs to ambassadors and courtiers. The boxes also led to the ‘language of the snuffbox’, a phenomenon at European courts where specific gestures involving a box had hidden meanings – a secret code between individuals.

Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert delighted in the dazzling details of these boxes, which tell stories on an astonishingly small scale using precious and exotic materials. As collectors, they enjoyed handling the boxes close-up, and finding out about their previous owners. Their collection of over 200 boxes is one of the most extensive ever formed and includes several magnificent bejewelled table snuffboxes commissioned by Frederick II, the Great, King of Prussia.

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Chrysopase box with diamonds, associated with Frederick II, the Great, King of Prussia, about 1765, Berlin, Germany. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.412-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For those first encountering these boxes, the variety of forms and decoration, and also the materials used alongside gold – from porcelain to precious stones, enamel and mother-of-pearl – are surprising. Browse a variety of boxes on our dedicated Pinterest board.

Their uniqueness is indebted to their owners’ desire to express not only their status in society but also their personal beliefs and tastes. Many of the boxes in the Gilbert Collection were meant to be viewed from all sides, as their decoration continues on the base and interior.

'Toys' for tobacco

The 18th century was the highpoint of courtly elegance – before the French Revolution brought about its decline. Paris was the epicentre of the production of refined, precious trinkets then known in England as ‘toys’. Numerous specialised workshops partnered with so-called 'marchand-merciers', luxury retailers who used their extensive and global networks to supply the most stunning masterpieces to their discerning clientele.

The designs for gold boxes in Paris came from some of the most creative and innovative minds of the period, including Juste-Aurèle Meissonier and Jean Mondon. The rest of Europe by and large emulated Parisian style; only the most eminent makers elsewhere – in Dresden, Berlin or St Petersburg – developed their own distinct range of materials and forms.

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Design for a snuffbox, Jean Mondon, 1725 – 50, France. Museum no. E.231-1938. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund and Goldsmiths’ Company

In France boxes for snuff became known as tabatières, a word derived from the French for tobacco. Tobacco had first come to Europe from the New World in the late 16th century. Settlements such as New Amsterdam (today New York) were important ports for ships taking tobacco across the Atlantic. Originally praised for its medicinal properties, tobacco soon became a recreational drug, and smoking a widespread pastime. Among the beliefs about tobacco noted by doctors and encyclopaedists, was that it helped to preserve sight and smell if used in moderation, especially when mixed with "fragrant oils and flowers or their essences". Not everyone agreed: King James I of England and King Louis XIV of France thought tobacco noxious.

Boxes specifically for tobacco came into fashion during the second half of the 17th century as snuff-taking became popular at the expense of pipe-smoking. These boxes were pocket-sized and had a tight fitting lid to prevent the snuff from drying out. This in turn encouraged the development of pockets in skirts and coats in order to hold these boxes. Because snuff-takers often sneezed, handkerchiefs also became crucial accessories. By the early 18th century the gold snuffbox was fully developed as a highly functional fashion accessory.

Precious souvenirs

The 1715 Frauenzimmer-Lexicon (‘Woman’s Lexicon’) lists the most common materials for snuffboxes as "silver, ivory, steel, horn or exotic wood". The fascination with gold snuff boxes first arose at court where snuff helped courtiers through long days in cold palaces. Soon, the act of handling the box and offering snuff evolved into a secret code which, though never written down comprehensively, had a particular name: the ‘language of the tabatière’. This ‘language’ must have had many dialects and variations. Carl Alexander von Lothringen recorded in his diary that taking snuff, and then pretending to flick traces of it from his coat or fur tippet, was his way of asking his beloved whether she would attend a ball. Though possibly less elaborate, the use of a snuffbox as a means of wordless communication is apparent in the painting Two ladies and an officer seated at tea, English school, about 1715, which has been interpreted as an accepted marriage proposal: after all she is dipping her hand in his box...

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Two ladies and an Officer seated at tea (with detail), about 1715, English School. Museum no. P.51-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In a society where marriage was often a matter of politics, not love, gold boxes became a way of lending intimacy to decisions made principally with dynastic considerations in mind. The Gilbert Collection includes an early and beautiful reminder of this. Made about 1714, possibly as an engagement gift, the box shows symbols of love with entwined initials on the outside, while the inside of the lid is fitted with an intricate miniature depicting Philip V, King of Spain.

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Box with initials EF for Elisabetta Farnese, 1714, Paris, France. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.314-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Courts were also the environment where another function for precious snuffboxes first emerged: as a token of appreciation and payment in kind when outright financial compensation was considered inappropriate. Such boxes had developed from so-called 'boîtes à portrait', portrait boxes set with diamonds –a gift of honour introduced by Louis XIV of France in the 17th century. Even if the recipient chose to sell the diamonds, a not uncommon decision, the boîte (box) remained as souvenir.

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So-called boÎte à portrait (portrait box) containing the miniature of an Elector with red bow, J.M. Khaetscher, 1690 – 5, Düsseldorf, Germany. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.294-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pan-European networks

Gold boxes are never the creation of just one maker. They are testament to the creative energy and the buzzing atmosphere of the craftsmen’s quarters in Europe’s largest cities – London and Paris. Pan-European networks existed alongside local hubs, and journeymen travelled to learn new skills and perfect their art. Emigration for religious or economic reasons also helped to spread the latest innovations in design and technology across the continent and to London. This explains why some of the eminent makers and artists associated with certain centres of production were not actually born in their adopted home town: such as George Michael Moser in London, Pierre Ador in St Petersburg or Daniel Chodowiecki and Daniel Baudesson in Berlin.

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Box with George Michael Moser chased medallion, Paul Barbot, 1774 – 5, England. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.391-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While many goldsmiths can be identified from their marks, the names we know today thanks to inscriptions and signatures on boxes, (or to inventories and other sources), are very few in comparison to the overall numbers of other specialists who must have been involved in making gold boxes.

Fast moving fashions

In 1759, Pierre Philippe Choffard designed an oval snuffbox that was made by the workshop of Jean Ducrollay near Pont Neuf a year later. It is included in an album of designs compiled over three generations at his workshop and is now part of the V&A’s collection.

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Gold box designed by Pierre-Phillippe Choffard, marked 1760 – 1 by Jean Ducrollay, Paris, France. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.382-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What makes the design for this box so remarkable is its style: the neoclassical design is defined by comparatively austere, clear forms inspired by antiquity and architectural ornament. It is the earliest dated design for a box in this style. The difference is all the more pronounced when compared with other pieces marked the same year: swirly rococo forms dominate a box set with playful enamel plaques after François Boucher made by Ducrollay’s competitor Jean Frémin.

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Gold box with diamonds and rubies, marked 1755 – 6 by Jean Ducrollay, Paris, France. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.328-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Designs for gold boxes range from workshop sketches to presentation pieces – some designs could even be folded into 3D models. Designs for imagery equally reflect changing fashions: anything that could trigger the imagination and spark a lively conversation was suitable for depiction on a gold box. Designers working on a particular box could draw inspiration from ornament prints and specific published designs which started to appear in the late 17th century. Sophisticated imagery alluding to historical events and fiction can be found alongside playful inventions.

Collectors

Design and material value made gold boxes not only fashionable but also collectable, a trend already apparent in the 18th century. Heinrich Graf von Brühl was prime minister to Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and one of the most powerful and influential people of his time. He was also a voracious collector of boxes, with more than 800 listed in the inventory compiled after his death. He owned an album, now lost, in which his outfits, including accessories such as boxes, hats and dress swords were recorded.

Frederick the Great

Some surviving 17th-century gold boxes, including many in the Gilbert Collection, are known to have been owned by historically important 18th-century figures, none more so than the group of table snuffboxes associated with King Frederick II, the Great, of Prussia.

The boxes designed for him, some of them even in part by him, hold a special place among 18th-century gold boxes: they are as recognisable as the Fabergé eggs produced in Russia about 150 years later. Playful and precious in equal measure they are set with a multitude of diamonds which sparkle in various colours, thanks to coloured metal foils set underneath. The king commissioned them in part to support and develop local craftsmanship. He proudly showed the boxes on bespoke tables, almost as if they were part of the interiors of his palaces. Camels, with their careful even walk, were employed to move these fragile marvels from the king’s residence in Berlin to his palaces in Potsdam.

The fascination with these small-scale masterpieces continued, even after the habit of snuff-taking went out of fashion. Gold boxes continued to be used as presentation boxes into the 19th and even 20th century: the City of London Corporation continued the tradition of presenting a box to those receiving the honorary freedom of the city.

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Gold Freedom box awarded in 1809 to Member of Parliament Gwyllim Lloyd Wardle by the City of London, marked 1808 – 9, Paul Strachan, London. Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.454-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London