Jewelry Caskets – what a dreary and macabre name for something meant to hold your treasured jewels!
Let’s start with the name – why on earth are they called “caskets”? A little bit of research has led us to find that a casket once did originally refer to a small box that held treasures and jewels. Per Wiki: “A casket, or jewelry box is a term for a container that is usually larger than a box, and smaller than a chest, and in the past was typically decorated.” Although we usually think of funerary uses when we hear the term casket, it seems that it started as a euphemism! From Wiki, again: “Any box used to bury the dead in is a coffin. Use of the word “casket” in this sense began as a euphemism introduced by the undertaker’s trade in North America; a “casket” was originally a box for jewelry.”
Wanting to know more about the euphemism, I found this on Woods-Valentine Mortuary’s website: “How are a jewelry box and a casket related? I heard a Pastor during a eulogy describe the person that had passed away, as a ‘precious jewel.’ He went further to say that the casket was ‘a jewelry box’, made for the beautiful jewel that lie in it.” I believe this was a common thought – and thus the interchangeability of the terms.
Now for some education:
Throughout history, jewelry boxes were constructed and designed by craftsmen, one box at a time. With the Industrial Revolution came the concept of mass production, avidly adopted in the United States during the late 19th century. For the first time, objects like jewelry boxes, could be cast in quantity, less costly to produce – and were sold in mail-order catalogues. There was now a Middle Class in America, able to purchase decorative items, not just the essentials.
Manufacturers experimented with many finishes. Most jewelry caskets were first electroplated with copper, then finished with gold or silver over spelter or antimonial lead (no iron – that’s why so many now have broken hinges). Jewel boxes were lined with fine pale-colored silks from Japan and China, also with faille, satin or sateen, and were often trimmed with twisted satin cord. Some boxes were lined with velvet in brighter colors.
International trade and travel drew attention to decorative styles all over the world. The most prominent decorative style of jewelry casket during the early 1900s was Art Nouveau, a romantic style noted for its flowing, asymmetrical lines, with motifs relating to nature. Most today associate Art Nouveau with graceful nymph-like young women, but floral motifs held a major place in the American Nouveau jewelry casket world. The Language of Flowers was a popular concept during the Victorian Period; so floral sentiments were reflected in the Nouveau style on jewelry boxes, the four-leaf-clover for good luck, daisies for innocence, roses for love and beauty, and so on.
There were several American Art Metal manufacturers that designed and produced jewel caskets, and they often trademarked or signed them. However, Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward implied in their early catalogs that they were the manufacturer supplying the merchandise. They did not was trademark on some items they sold. So, one may find two identical jewelry caskets, one with a signature, another without.
Peak production lasted fewer than 15 years, 1904-1918, but the term Mass Production held a completely different meaning then than it does today. Gold and silver finished caskets were the most common. The silver caskets have not fared well, unless actually silver-plated, a rare find. Also rare are souvenir jewelry caskets with commemorative ceramic or photo discs. The ivory finished boxes, though somewhat later in development, remain elusive. Their finishes were more durable, so they may still be handed down within families.
These wonderful antique jewelry caskets were much valued, and they held their popularity well until World War I, when the continuity of fashion was broken, re-directing interest from decorative to the function and power of the machine. Fortunately, we can still discover examples of the almost-100-year old treasures.
All of the jewelry caskets listed here will be sold in our upcoming Etsy store!
Information taken from Joanne Wiertella’s many brilliant articles. Her collection of cast metal jewel boxes and quest for knowledge led her to write a book – THE JEWEL BOX BOOK: The Definitive Guide to American Art Metal Jewelry Boxes 1900-1925. Click here for her website.