Bonbonnièrres are small decorative boxes containing ‘bonbons’ or sweets. Hence the derivation of the term ‘bonbonnièrre’ from the French word ‘bonbon’. Everyone had bad breath in the Eighteenth Century so these beautiful little boxes were not only celebrated gifts but like most enamel boxes of the era, they also contained very useful necessities of everyday life – sugar coated seeds and nuts that were sucked to disguise the unfortunate smell of halitosis!
Amongst wealthy aristocratic circles these small boxes of sweets – each holding only a few confections were given to celebrate birthdays, christenings and marriages. The earliest sweets would have been dry and rather had confections known as ‘confits’ (sugared nuts, cloves and seeds) and diamond from sugar ‘lozenges’. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, sugar was quite costly – only available via shipment from the Caribbean Islands’ sugar plantations. So too were their containers – sometimes made of gold, precious stones, crystals or porcelain. Even owning a bonbonnièrre indicated a person as someone of wealth and status. Gifting a bonbonnièrre not only provided a thoughtful memento of a special occasion, but it also significantly served as a reminder of the giver’s own social status.
First popularised in France, bonbonnièrres were later introduced to Scotland and England in the Eighteenth Century as the local expertise and flair for enamelling took off. It Italy, they were traditionally given as wedding gifts, each enclosing five sugared almonds, representing fertility, health, wealth, happiness and longevity, as well as the bittersweet life of a married couple.
Generally made in enamel on metal, in porcelain with metal mounts and some exquisite and very expensive examples in gold. A few were also made in glass but these are even rarer to come by due to their fragility.
Decorative concepts tend to be quite whimsical and intricate. Some are set with small portraits or landscapes and precious stones – particularly the gold examples. The English were particularly good at fashioning whimsical animal forms in enamel on copper.