In the late 1700s, mechanical singing birds, rendered life size with feathers, were the most popular type of music box among the well-to-do. Fast forward to today's digital age, where gadgets smaller than music boxes function as smart phones, movie and music players, almost rendering old-fashioned music boxes obsolete. Music boxes seem so charming, yet their precise mechanisms, some of which were crafted two hundred years ago, deliver a perfect pitch melody and are some of the most collectible objects available today.
In fact, the most highly prized mechanical music boxes feature an automated singing bird in a gilded cage or housed in an expensive wooden or precious metal engraved box. Music boxes have always been a source of fascination and one of the most complete collections of this sort is available at the venerable M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans.
"We started collecting music boxes when my Dad took over the antiques business, and we have come across some incredibly ornate and complex music boxes that range in size from a small organ to these miniature mechanical bird boxes," explained Bill Rau, third generation owner of M.S. Rau Antiques.
Delicately and artfully crafted by French and German artisans, these petite boxes became symbols of elegance for the aristocracy in the 18th century and were highly collected back in the day.
Music boxes were made in many sizes from the size of snuff box to a large piece of furniture, but most were small enough to be placed on side tables and in vitrines as objets d'art. They were usually powered by clockwork and originally produced by watchmakers.
The mechanical singing bird was invented by the Jaquet-Droz brothers, who were clockmakers from La Chaux-de-Fonds, the center of watch making in Switzerland. In 1848, the manufacture of automated singing birds was improved upon by a Parisian named Blaise Bontems in his workshop.
The Rococo design of the sterling silver musical bird box shown here typifies the elaborate mechanism and design work prevalent in that era. The filigree design and scroll work hides a brightly feathered bird which pops out and chirps a song and flutters its wings before disappearing back into the box.
Another example of a singing bird music box (ca. 1900) is made in Switzerland from which a chirping songbird emerges from a bright red box once the little key is turned to activate the musical melody. After singing, the miniature bird moves back inside and the lid automatically closes behind it.
A remarkable gold engraved singing bird music box executed in the Rococo design features not only a delicate feathered creature, but a magnificent painted medallion depicting a pastoral scene of a couple courting. Made by the house of E. Ruhl (ca. 1900), this example of an automated bird is beyond compare.
Other extraordinary mechanical bird boxes can be found online at http://bit.ly/YviUA4 and www.rauantiques.com. M.S. Rau Antiques, located in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans for more than a century, is the country's largest antiques gallery specializing in 18th and 19th century fine art, antiques, as well as estate jewelry and rare gems.