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Beauty, Rarity, History...The M.S. Rau Antiques Blog

Bill Rau

M.S. Rau Antiques

Led by third-generation owner and published fine art expert Bill Rau, M.S. Rau Antiques has grown by leaps and bounds since his grandfather Max Rau opened the doors in 1912 to a then-small antiques store in the heart of New Orleans' historic French Quarter. Bill's extensive knowledge and reputation as a leader places him among the most respected antique experts and gallery owners today.

A New Orleans institution for over 100 years, M.S. Rau Antiques is among the premier antiques galleries in the world. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, our 25,000 square foot gallery overflows with incredible antiques by names including Tiffany & Co., Paul Revere and Fabergé. Our unparalleled selection of important, original paintings and sculpture spans the 16th through the 21st century, created by legendary artists such as Brueghel, Monet and Rockwell, and our diverse selection of exquisite jewels, including rare colored diamonds, Kashmir sapphires and Burma rubies is without equal.

The Tiniest of Treasures: Rare & Important Singing Bird Boxes

  • Frères Rochat crafted this rare, early Swiss singing bird box with the desirable fusée movement, housed in an elegant engraved silver and hand-enameled case.  Circa 1840.

    Frères Rochat crafted this rare, early Swiss singing bird box with the desirable fusée movement, housed in an elegant engraved silver and hand-enameled case. Circa 1840.

    M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans

  • The renowned Charles Bruguier created this rare, early Swiss fusée singing bird box.  He produced an average of only 27 of these precious boxes per year during his career, making his boxes even more precious.  Circa 1860.

    The renowned Charles Bruguier created this rare, early Swiss fusée singing bird box. He produced an average of only 27 of these precious boxes per year during his career, making his boxes even more precious. Circa 1860.

    M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans

It’s often been said that the best gifts come in small packages. The maxim certainly rings true when delving into the world of antique singing bird boxes

The Magic Within

Masterpieces that literally fit in the palm of your hand, singing bird boxes combine the engineering genius of the watchmaker with the cultivated eye of the jeweler. At once, these miniature marvels appear to be snuffboxes – magnificent objets d’art delectably crafted of luxurious materials such as silver, gold, tortoiseshell or enamel – which is why they are often referred to as “tabatières à oiseau chanteur” (“snuffboxes of songbirds”) or simply tabatières (“snuffboxes”).

But with the press of a discrete button, the magic held within these diminutive treasures is realized.

Wound similarly to a watch, the mechanism within activates when the button in pressed and the oval lid atop the box pops open, revealing a tiny automaton bird. Immediately, the hand-feathered wonder springs to life with the vigor and realism of an actual songbird, flapping its wings, turning its body from side to side, and opening and closing its beak as it “sings” its enchanting tune.

 

The Pioneers

The invention of these wondrous creations is attributed to Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, and first appeared in Geneva during the last quarter of the 18th century. His creation had first been utilized in larger-scale “bird cages” sometime between 1770 and 1784, but when he successfully created a miniaturized version of his pipe organ mechanism circa 1785, the era of the singing bird box began.

The early boxes contain the rare and highly sought after fusée movement. These mechanisms allowed the bird to sing longer and the animation to be more life-like. Each bird box was crafted entirely by hand; from the bird itself - hand-feathered with authentic hummingbird plumes - to the inner workings, each element was unique and made specifically for that particular box. Understandably, the cost of manufacture for these works of art was significant, with only royalty and the most affluent being able to afford them.

It seemed almost immediately the knowledge of these exquisite creations spread throughout Europe, and becoming favorites amongst members of high society. Founding craftsmen such as Droz, Jacob Frisard and Jean-Frédéric Leschot were pivotal in the art form’s development, paving the way for other iconic artisans including Frères Rochat and the Bruguier family of bird box makers. All of these craftsmen created fusée movements exclusively. To find their creations today is beyond extraordinary.

 

The Evolution

The art of the singing bird box evolved further in France with clock and automaton master Blaise Bontems around 1815, whose business would continue until the 1950s through his son Charles Jules and grandson Lucien. They were the first to replace the fusée with a simplified going-barrel movement that retained the life-like resonances of the fusée, leading the Bontems’ to be known as the “fathers” of the modern singing bird box. The most coveted 19th- to 20th- century going-barrel examples were created by the prestigious E. Flajoulot of Paris, known to be the artist behind some of the most exceptional bird boxes of the era both for their technical intricacy and exceptional beauty.

Delightful, unique and simply gorgeous, it’s no wonder why singing bird boxes were once the exclusive luxury of kings and nobility. So before assuming bigger is better this holiday season, don’t forget to explore these minute masterpieces. The joy and wonder they bring will last for years to come.

View our selection of rare and important singing bird boxes.

About M.S. Rau Antiques:

M.S. Rau Antiques has spent over 100 years earning the trust of discerning collectors world-wide. Located in the heart of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, our peerless showroom houses one of the world’s most extensive and stunning collections of important fine art by artists such as Monet and van Gogh, rare 18th-and 19th-century antiques and breathtaking jewelry, including rare colored diamonds.

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