An Exquisite Songbird in a Silver Box

By Thierry de Lachaise

A t the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, trade between Europe and Asia followed an opposite course compared to our time! The speciality of gold boxes is a prime example. Without a doubt until the French Revolution, Paris was the city of reference to acquire a beautiful gold snuffbox, but as Henri Clouzot wrote, "the French Revolution extinguishes the enamelists’ kilns". After 1790, the city of Geneva knew how to benefit from this fashion trend more so than others, whether for the Ottoman market, with polychrome boxes employing greens and pinks treasured by the Sublime Porte, or the famous songbird boxes that the Middle Kingdom cherished particularly. The reason for this penchant is simple, Genevan enamel artists had gained unparalleled fame.

Supplementing the other great wealth of Helvetian craftsmen, the technical prowess developed by watchmakers for intricate mechanisms was promptly adapted for automata design, especially in the La Chaux-de-Fonds Valley along the foothills of the Jura. This is where Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) founded one of the most famous automaton workshops. His production ranged from tiny watch mechanisms to human-sized machines that European courts snatched up. The Chinese and especially the Imperial family adored these automata. Using a winding key, the movement enabled the lid to open and a small bird with shimmering colors (covered with real hummingbird feathers) springs out of the box, opens its beak, turns its head and flaps its wings while playing a melodious song.

The box is punched with the crowned GR/G maker’s mark of Guidon, Rémond, Gide & Co. This company comprising various goldsmiths was created in Geneva on 1 January 1792. Jean-Georges Rémond was the son of a Huguenot goldsmith installed in Hanau (Hesse). He was granted precious metalsmith-jeweler status on 2 December 1790. Guidon and Gide were themselves from Geneva and goldsmiths since 1771 and 1788. This partnership lasted until January 1801.

This box has an enameled miniature adapting the famous painting by John Russell, Betsy in Trouble, on its lid. This artwork was widely known due to the engraving printed by Schiavonetti in 1797 (one is displayed British Museum). It depicts a young tearful girl leaning on a plinth where a bird cage is placed and a dead canary at the edge. She realizes that her negligence resulted in her finch’s demise. The enamelled miniature is inset in an oval beaded frame, the edge of the box is also set within a beaded framing.

A fairly similar box, made by Rémond, Lamy & Mercier in Geneva with an automaton by the Frères Rochat, was auctioned by Sotheby's in London in the sale, Treasures on 3 July 2019, Lot no. 6. Also intended for the Chinese market and dated 1813, it presented likewise two small clock dials inset along the box’s front. It was repaired between 1815 and 1817 by Golay, Genevan watchmaker on Quai aux Fleurs in Paris where the bird market has been held for a very long time. The Frères Rochat began their career by providing songbirds to Jaquet-Droz and Leschot then moved their company to Geneva.

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