The singing bird box or ‘boîte á oiseau chanteur’ originated in Geneva in the late Eighteenth Century, with its first design attributed to Pierre Jaquet-Droz. They were usually rectangular shaped boxes containing a miniature automaton singing bird concealed beneath an oval lid and activated by a lever. The French also used the more general term of ‘tabatière’.
The outer casing is a rectangular box that could be made of base metal, precious metal or tortoiseshell with an oval hole edged by a decorative metal bezel. The front of the box usually has a small slider that when pushed to the right, reveals the pop up of a small mechanical feathered bird that begins to turn from side to side, flap its wings and sometimes produces birdsong.
Another famed bird box maker Jean Frédéric Leschot joined forces with Jaquet-Droz to develop technology further, allowing variable pitch in bird song and furthering demand and popularity throughout Europe. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, bird boxes or musical tabatières were also being manufactured in France, Germany and England, all building on both the mechanical advances and the decorative intricacies of their origins.
The Swiss Brugiuer family gained great fame in miniature songbird mechanisms that were contained in richly decorated snuff cases by Genevan enamelists shch as Richter, Dufey and Procchietto. Charles Abraham Brugiuer resided in London in the early Nineteenth Century where demand grew further before the family returned to Geneva to develop and refine their technology even more.
France too became a booming centre of automata production in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, where the Mason Botnems flourished and developed their own mechanical advances.
These musical or singing bird boxes highlight a wondrous marriage between the skill and ingenuity of the watchmaker and the talents of the goldsmith and enameller.