Personal Luxuries

Just add jewellery

The latest jewellery boxes conjure up a sense of occasion, discovery and romance. And, says Vivienne Becker, the best are to be treasured as highly as the jewels they contain.

November 15 2009
Vivienne Becker

I have always believed in a link between make-up and jewellery, in the colour, the light that lifts the complexion, the glamour and the element of trans­formation and role play. But most of all, both are part of the ritual of the dressing table, which has returned in full force (Claridge’s, for example, is offering a special dressing-table service for guests, complete with a silk dressing gown and Dior cosmetics). This comes alongside a renewed sense of ceremony and a celebration of preciousness in the world of jewellery. All of which means that the jewellery box has been pulled out from the back of the cupboard and put on show as a boudoir centrepiece.

Jewellery boxes are enveloped in romance and intrigue, with a promise of treasures, memories and secrets. As a child I used to sit at my aunt’s dressing table, with its bottles, pots and potions, and play with her jewellery in a golden chocolate box with delicious drawers and silk tassels. I’d help her choose what to wear from the little cocoa-scented compartments, which seemed like the last word in glamour and luxury.

A far cry from my chocolate box, certainly, but furniture designer David Linley’s memories play a huge part in the couture jewellery boxes he has been hand-crafting for nearly 25 years. “One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother’s jewellery casket in her bedroom, full of make-believe paste jewellery,” he says. “I particularly remember the smell.” This childhood memory has helped him make jewellery boxes a speciality of his company. “They are a perfect complement to a precious object given to a loved one,” he continues, “and with pop-out drawers and intricate doors, it’s like theatre, a performance.” On occasion, Linley has crafted bespoke boxes for the world’s top jewellers, to house a specific piece and add to the sense of occasion, especially when the jewel is an important gift. Watch boxes are another speciality, many of them created as bespoke commissions in a quality of craftsmanship to match the technical ingenuity of the watch.

Conjuring up a sense of wonder, Linley’s celebrated architectural boxes, made to order, are detailed miniature replicas of famous buildings (from £14,000), such as the 1759 Casino at Marino in Dublin, made of sycamore, or the Palladian-style Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. They are hand-crafted with secret drawers and compartments, ornate marquetry and lift-out, turquoise-silk-lined trays. While these are masculine in style, says Linley, he also makes feminine boxes; in duck-egg-blue shagreen (£1,595), for example, or the new oval marquetry box (£6,995), which has a dignified nobility. The box is no longer simply a utilitarian object, states Linley, it’s about emotion, and has an aesthetic and a tactile quality: “The barriers have come down. The box is now a memento and a memory.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by London jeweller Theo Fennell, who has made a special silver ring box (£4,900) panelled with wood from the old stage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and lined with velvet from the curtains of The Old Vic. The top is engraved with an inscription explaining the references. It is Fennell’s witty way of underlining the sense of theatre that comes with the presentation of jewellery.

Personalisation, through engraved or gold-foiled initials, dates and messages, has long been part of the jewel-box tradition, amplifying its supremely personal nature as an intimate treasure chest. And it has become an important aspect of the jewellery box again today. Anya Hindmarch has taken her passion for personalisation to a new level with her Bespoke Collection, which includes a fresh focus on the jewellery box. The Memory Boxes (from £795), as they are called, are pleasingly simple and stately rectangular boxes with gilt carrying handles, made with hidden personal details or old-fashioned touches, such as gilt-labelled compartments. In her signature covetable craftsmanship and materials (the skins in many cases have been developed specially for the collection), they open to reveal a complex assortment of trays, drawers and lidded boxes – all customised to a client’s specifications.

Furthermore, the boxes reflect Hindmarch’s belief in the things that matter most in life: happy memories, friends and family. Personal photographs are printed onto the silk linings of secret drawers and beneath lids, or an inscription or message, or even a favourite doodle, embossed into the leather inside the lid. Each box comes with a gift card quoting J M Barrie: “God gave us memories so that we might have roses in December.” It is a clever play on the jewellery box as keeper of all things precious.

At Smythson, where the jewellery box has been part of the company’s history for 100 years, many of its fast-growing range of jewel receptacles have been adapted from its classic 1902 range. This season it has gone for lust-inducing rich jewel colours, textures and exotic skins, or a super-luxurious winter-white pigskin, turning the jewel case into an object of desire in itself. But it has also researched and developed the functional practicalities of jewellery storage. It’s a tricky matter, I feel. For while serious jewellery is often kept in a safe, and is hard or bothersome to fish out on a whim, many jewellery boxes, say for less precious or costume jewellery, are often not quite big enough nor compartmentalised in the right way, so jewel overflows are stuffed into drawers, unseen for months.

This could all change with the Smythson Jewellery Cabinet (£2,875), a mini-wardrobe with doors and drawers that has been designed to slide into a home safe, with enough differently sized, carefully thought-out compartments to offer access to all your jewellery at a glance. Samantha Cameron, creative director of Smythson, has a special interest and an insider’s insight into jewellery storage, having worked in her mother’s jewellery shop, Annabel Jones in Beauchamp Place, where, she says, customers were presented with whole trays of jewels to sift through. The cabinet comes in this season’s sumptuous malachite (blue-green) crocodile-printed leather and a man’s version, with “rockers” for keeping mechanical watches in time, comes in glossy black pigskin (from £2,995).

Since the Edwardian days of parties and balls, travel has been an important element of jewellery casing. New too at Smythson is the versatile jewellery briefcase (from £1,995) – softly rounded and lined in signature quilted nubuck – inside which fit three removable lidded travel boxes and a watch roll, all of which can be used alone. The case has a compartment for magazines and travel documents, and can also carry a laptop instead of its jewellery boxes. And validating my theory, Smythson has also come up with a combined jewel and beauty box (the Dressing Table Box, from £1,995). The beauty section on one side includes a set of professional make-up brushes, and the jewellery storage on the other is lined in suede, both backed with a bevelled mirror. It’s a true celebration of the dressing table.

Also with a long tradition of jewel cases and travelling boxes, Asprey has an altogether grander proposition. Its impressively massive cantilevered affairs (from £3,500), in leather or rarefied alligator have suede-lined trays that glide and rise gracefully out to the sides on polished gilt hinges. These are, it seems, designed to sit under a dressing table or grace a corner of a dressing room. The new designs (from £750) have softer contours and are deeper yet more compact, with drawers and removable trays. They come in deep, powdery pastel tones of soft Capra leather – the sand colour is particularly luxurious – or in more masculine black or brown, with a matching new envelope-shaped jewellery roll, that is practical for packing.

Of course, the great and historic malletiers Louis Vuitton and Goyard have always offered travel solutions for jewels – mini-trunks, cases or wardrobes – that preserve the jewellery ritual while on the road. While there are some jewel-boxes in store (£16,000), Louis Vuitton feels that jewellery is so specific, so precious that it demands and justifies extra-special, personalised storage. The company offers a special bespoke service, overseen in Asnières, the Louis Vuitton family home near Paris, which now houses its workshops. Indeed, the service has its own ritual and ceremony, with client consultations, sketches and meetings in Asnières resulting in boxes designed to house specific pieces from a jewellery collection, fabricated in the client’s choice of Vuitton fabrics – Epi leather, Damier (chequerboard) or Monogram canvas – with a choice of lining and superlative attention to detail to complement the value of the jewels (prices on request).

Miniature vanity cases or trunks make dramatic statements as small pieces of furniture in a bedroom or dressing room, but are probably only practical as a travel solution if you fly by private jet, or as a walk-through, carry-on option. Goyard, trunk-maker to royalty since the 19th century and recently installed in London’s Mount Street, also makes classic jewellery cases to special order, following its painstaking process of hand-fabrication in the company’s signature chevron-patterned canvas “toile” and leather. The trunk for men’s watches and cuff links is made to measure to accommodate up to 12 watches, while a jewellery case (price on request), inspired by the evocative Grand Hotel suitcase, has four removable trays with a specific arrangement of compartments for various forms of jewels. It recently had an order from one client for three trunks for their three homes around the world.

Leather specialist Trevor Pickett uses colour to set his jewellery boxes apart from the crowd, with small, lightweight travel cases lined in suede or bigger, wooden-based boxes with trays (from £599). This season he has created a damask-embossed leather box (£675) inspired by Florentine leather-panelled rooms, in rich colourways including a sumptuously noble purple. Yet he too finds there is an increasing demand for bespoke jewellery boxes, often made to fit a safe and with places for specific jewels. One client, Pickett explains, planned each section of her box so carefully that she designated and labelled compartments with the brand and carat-weight of each piece. “We’ve also made a set of 10 steamer trunks with 10 lift-out trays, each with a different layout for jewels,” he says.

And so, as Patrick Louis Vuitton likes to say, quoting his great-grandfather, “The main thing is to allow your personal effects to travel in the greatest possible comfort.” Let’s relish the ritual.

See also

Jewellery boxes