The "taking of snuff" was a very social activity among Europe's upper class, beginning in the early 16th century. It's hard to believe a habit that caused frequent, and at times messy, sneezing fits would become so en vogue, but it did. And, with such widespread usage by seemingly every person of importance in the 16th century, the demand for a fashionable yet functional way to carry one's snuff inspired the greatest jewelers, enamellers, goldsmiths and silversmiths of the time to create what we know today as the snuffbox.
It is said that Queens Anne and Charlotte enjoyed snuff so much, that nearly every member of their courts partook in the habit. Catherine de' Medici used snuff to treat her son's persistent migraines, and many credit her belief in its therapeutic properties with the popularization of snuff among nobility.
The most extravagant boxes were considered a necessity for well-healed ladies and gentlemen, and were often exchanged as gifts. The taking of snuff was regarded as a social activity, where each person in a group would present their particular snuff blend to share and compare amongst themselves. These elegant boxes could be made of anything-from porcelain and tortoiseshell, to multi-colored gold. This Swiss Tri-Colored Gold Snuffbox is a perfect example of the latter, using chased and engraved yellow, green and rose gold to create a truly beautiful objet d'art. The French became known for some of the most intricate snuffboxes, which this Gold and Enamel Snuffbox would be a prime specimen. The lid features a highly detailed, hand-painted enamel of a young couple in love, with magnificent royal blue guilloché enamel and gold ornaments accentuating the border and sides.
The use of snuff has been on a steady rise in recent years. So, understandably, the desirability of these exceptional boxes has increased to match. The finest examples demand great attention on the market, such as the German snuffbox that sold at Christie's London for an astonishing $1.3 million dollars in 2003. Even if snuff is not your style, it's impossible to turn your nose up at these splendid, miniature works of art.
To see M.S. Rau Antiques' collection of rare and important snuffboxes, click here.