Miniature Music Players: THE MUSIC BOX

Vintage 36 note Reuge Musical Jewellery Box - photo by N. J. Dean & Co UK

Before there were portable music players and appsthere was the music box. This carefully crafted contraption made of wood or other material plays a certain melody whenever one winds the key or opens the box. But how did they come to be? 

Eight-Tune Triple-Mechanism Musical Clock by Pierre Jaquet Droz, a la Chaux-de-Fonds. Made circa 1770 – photo by Wiglaf!

A music box often contains a mechanism that included pinned cylinders. These pinned cylinders were originally used in carillon towers, which had large bells that were rung to inform people all over the town of the time. Carillons were recorded to have been around as early as 1321 in St. Catherine’s Abby near Rouen, France.  

Even though the most often used mechanism in music boxes emerged in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until the 1700s that items that inspired music boxes as we know them today came about. Pierre Jaquet-Droz was known to have created musical clocks in the mid-1700s. Jaquet-Droz was also known to have created automatons and was a well-known master-watchmaker. One of his singing bird clocks could play six different tunes. As the song plays, the bird pivots, opens its beak, and shakes its tail feathers, as a real bird would. 

A Swiss clockmaker from Genève, Antoine Favre-Salomon was the first to get a patent for a music box that made use of a mechanism comprised of pinned cylinders and metal comb with tuned teeth. This was in 1796. More innovations for the music box mechanism emerged after. 

In around 1800, Isaac Daniel Piguet from Geneva invented repeating musical watches. These watches made use of a pinned horizontal disc which operated radially arranged tuned steel teeth. David LeCoultre designed a brass cylinder that could play notes in 1810. The cylinder could play notes on a length of tuned steel teeth. To get multiple tunes, longer cylinders would be pinned. They could also be adjusted laterally to allow switching between songs.  

Antique Victorian walnut cylinder bells-in-view music box by Barnett Henry Abrahams, St. Croix, Switzerland, circa 1870 – photo by 1stDibs

Francois Nicole created a steel hairspring damper that could soften each note’s ringing. LeCoultre’s cylinders, paired with Nicole’s steel hairspring damper, brought about the birth of the modern music box. In 1811, the first musical boxes were produced in Saint-Croix, Switzerland. Saint-Croix was also known to have opened the first production line music box factories in 1862.  

Interchangeable cylinder music boxes also came about in 1862, which were produced by Paillard. Music boxes in this century were rather largeat approximately thirteen inches long. They contained a mechanism with an interchangeable brass cylinder and ninety-six teeth. The boxes were made of wood, often unadorned, but a few had cravings or engravings on the wood. The box can also be opened if one wished to observe the mechanism as it moved.  

In 1886, Paul Lochmann was granted the patent for cardboard discs for music boxes, which were shortly replaced by metal discs. Symphonion Musikwerks engineer Paul Wendland got a patent for the star wheel in 1886.  

The 1890s marked the rise in popularity of disc-type music boxes. These discs were easier to store and replace and allowed music box owners to enjoy greater song variety. These discs were the precursors for the invention of phonographs and player piano. The invention of phonographs and gramophones, together with the First World War and the Great Depression in the United States, brought the decline of music box sales. 

A Collection of Melodies: Starting a Music Box Collection

Harry Potter Music Box – photo by Groot Gadgets

Music boxes in the 21st century have become novelty items. They often make lovely presents, especially for young girls and ladies. They also come in many forms: from the usual box to clocks, snow globes, figurines, and the most common variety as jewellery boxes. One could also choose a music box for the song it plays. Music boxes often play classical music like the ever-popular Für Elise by Beethoven and Strauss’s Blue Danube. Modern music boxes also feature music from popular movies and play like Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter. Music boxes these days can be made from a variety of materials like wood, glass, metal, and even plastic. They make quite the collector’s item.

If one decides to begin collecting music boxes, there are a few things one must know.


19th Century German Silver, Jewels and Enamel Table Singing Bird Musical Box – photo by 1stDibs

As with any collectable, one must consider the materials an item is made of. Some materials would require a particular temperature, a maintenance method, and so on. The type of material an item is made of would determine how it should be stored. Material type may also determine the age or era of which the item was made, as well as its manufacturer. Music boxes made by renowned manufacturers and artisans are of course, more valuable than those that are not. So, what materials are used to make a music box?

Music boxes are often made of wood, but could also be made from gold, silver, and other metals. 19th-century snuff music boxes, for instance, are made from gold and silver. There are also those that are made from horn or tortoiseshell. Boxes made from burr oak, burr walnut, and amboyna wood are found to be elegant and gorgeous.


Vintage 80s Swiss Reuge Guilloche Enamel Musical Jewelry Box – photo by Etsy

The decoration of a music box may vary depending on what kind of music box it is. Musical jewellery boxes would have a different design and décor from a child’s music box. This is mostly dependent on the collector’s preference. Early 19th-century music boxes often have decorated lids and might be appealing to some. Some have lids painted with miniatures like some musical snuff boxes. David Tallis, in his book Music Boxes: A Guide for Collectors, recommends that one look for music boxes decorated by Charles-Claude Delaye. He decorated a musical snuff box with a miniature that had bevelled glass and gilt copper frame. According to Tallis, one would be lucky to find one with an Italian miniature mosaic or a lid with a Swiss enamel miniature, all of which are skillfully done and quite uncommon.


Sectional comb metal music box, a so-called “tabatière”, with flower decoration – photo by Catawiki

The date or age of a music box makes a difference in terms of value. A box’s design may be used as a clue as artistic styles can be associated with a particular era. Tallis outlines a few things that a collector can look for to determine the date of the item. Music boxes with laminated combs are from 1796 to 1810. Those with sectional combs of 1 are from 1796 to 1820, while those with sectional combs of 2 are from 1810 to 1820. Sectional one-piece comb music boxes are from 1820 onwards.

Music boxes with a hollow cylinder without wax are often dated to be from before 1820. These cylinders give off a metallic tone. One could also look for the craftsman’s initials or manufacturer’s badge.

Some Popular Collectable Music Boxes

A 17 inch Lochmann “Original 128” tubular bells disc musical box, German, circa 1900 – photo by Bonhams

Not all music boxes are the same. Some are more skillfully crafted than others, and these are what collectors seek the most. Among the most sought after are Adler, Capital Cuff, Olympia, and New Century. Others that would be worthy of being the crown jewel of one’s collection include Lochmann’s Original with tubular bells, MIRA Mahogany double comb music box, Polyphon Serpentine walnut disc music box, and MIRA/EMPRESS ornate console disc music box, to mention a few.

Helpful References and Sources

As with any collectable, there are many helpful guides and references one could consult regarding music box collecting. One such reference, as mentioned earlier, is Music Boxes: A Guide for Collectors by David Tallis. Frederick Bradbury’s Guide to the Marks of the Origin of British and Irish Silver Plate is a good guide for those who would like to check on the hallmark of their item. Bradbury’s booklet contains all hallmarks of major assay offices including those from the mid-16th century to the present. For music boxes that are made of metal or have metal inlays, books like James Henderson’s Silver Collecting for Amateurs, Hallmarks on Gold and Silver Plate by W. Chaffers and Tardy’s Les Poincons de Garanties Internationaux pour L’Argent is also quite informative.

Music Boxes: A Guide for Collectors by David Tallis – photo by Adelaide Booksellers

One could also join organisations and associations dedicated to antique musical instruments. Membership is said to be comparatively inexpensive, but the benefits include a wealth of information about the items. Also, some members would have a connection to legitimate and authentic dealers and sellers, so one is assured of finding a trusted and reliable source of music boxes. One could contact the Musical Box Society International and Automatic Musical Instrument Collector’s Association for advice and information regarding music boxes.

One could acquire authentic pieces from stores like Regina Music Box Center, and auction houses such as Bonhams, and Live Auctioneers. If one would simply want to view various music boxes, one could visit museums. Japan actually has a few museums dedicated to music boxes. Among these are Kyoto Arashiyama Orgel Museum (Kyoto), Otaru Music Box Museum (Hokkaido), Nasu Music Box Museum (Tochigi), Hamanako Music Box Museum, and Music Box Museum of Izu. The last two can both be found in Shizuoka.

The Music Box: A Marriage of Music and Artistic Craftsmanship

Music boxes, whether they be antique or made in the present carry a certain air of seeming magic. No matter what form of the music box, it would always seem delicate. It evokes a feeling of nostalgia, and as the box is opened or the key turned, memories seem to rise with the melody. In film and television, a character is sometimes brought into reverie by music box found in the drawers of a loved one or a box in the attic.

Music boxes make quite the collector’s item or an heirloom with their carefully crafted exterior, be that a box, carousel, or figurine. The ingenuity of the mechanism of the miniature player continues to fascinate and capture one who plays it. Despite all the modern musical inventions, there’s nothing quite like a music box.