A Music Box’s Timeless Air in the Age of iTunes

The music box’s modern role as a luxurious, exclusive gift literally fit for kings

(©Reuge SA)
(©Reuge SA)

The birthplace of the music box is Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, a town of about 5,000 people, each with a personal connection to this mechanized beauty and grace. Reuge has been making music boxes in Sainte-Croix for more than 150 years, and its history is interwoven with the story of the music box itself.

The music box isn’t utilitarian. It lost its purpose in the most practical sense long ago with the advent of the gramophone, not to mention today’s iPods. Yet it remains a cherished object today because it gives us something an iPod can’t.

“It’s as useless as love,” says Reuge’s CEO, Kurt Kupper.

Kupper has found that, like love, these meticulously crafted objets d’art can strengthen the connections between people and enrich their lives. This is a purpose beyond the mere mechanical utility of playing music.

Reuge creates music boxes that are unique and meaningful like the bond between two people. Its music boxes are a favoured gift not only between lovers, but also between heads of state and business magnates. Barack Obama received a Reuge music box from the emir of Qatar during his presidency. Deepak Chopra, Jack Ma, and the Dalai Lama are among the many other famed recipients of Reuge gifts.

Reuge's Byzance music box featuring an automaton singing bird. (©Reuge SA)
Reuge’s Byzance music box featuring an automaton singing bird. (©Reuge SA)

An appreciation of the music box’s beauty is universal. The workings of a music box recall the automata that have fascinated people from Ancient Greece to today, across many cultures. There’s something delightful about the workings of gears and sprockets, of mechanical pieces intricately designed to orchestrate graceful movements.

Without computer chips or electricity, they seem to move with a life of their own, animated by a soul.

Inside the music box is a rotating cylinder or disc covered with thousands — or even tens of thousands — of tiny metal pins. A steel comb brushes along the cylinder as it rotates. The pins are meticulously placed so that they will create specific musical notes as they brush against the comb’s teeth, causing the teeth to vibrate. These tiny boxes can play grand symphonies.

A worker makes a music box at the Reuge workshop in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland. (©Reuge SA)
A worker makes a music box at the Reuge workshop in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland. (©Reuge SA)

Reuge makes music boxes of solid oak or mother of pearl, among many other precious materials. The “boxes” are crafted into diverse shapes: one looks like wheat gently swaying in a breeze, another is a little bird fluttering and tweeting, another is a polished Star Wars spaceship replica.

Reuge is considered the premier music-box maker in the world. Although the price tags are anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1.5 million per music box, Kupper says, it’s not about the money-value of the boxes.

He emphasizes that luxury is about the thought behind each piece. A head of state, when commissioning a gift, will often tell Kupper he doesn’t have time to think about what kind of music box he wants. “Well, just give me some gifts. I don’t have time,” he’ll say.

Kupper will reply, “No, no, Your Excellency. I need to know, ‘Who are you? What is your vision? What are you proud of? What do you want the people to know about you or your country?’”

“Then I can develop something,” Kupper says. “It’s not about catalogues.”

A monument and an heirloom

The great works of history — the pyramids, the statues, the triumphal arches detailing the deeds and lives of kings — were similarly emblematic of a ruler’s legacy.

For gifts, Kupper draws out the unique personality and passions of the giver — what the giver wants the receiver to remember about him. Kupper also makes each piece embody things that the receiver holds dear. This is what makes the music box truly precious and creates a link between the two.

The great works of history — the pyramids, the statues, the triumphal arches detailing the deeds and lives of kings — were similarly emblematic of a ruler’s legacy.

You wouldn’t invite a vegetarian out for a Kobe beef dinner if you wanted to establish business, diplomatic, or romantic ties, Kupper says. So why not put this kind of personal consideration into a gift?

The music box, and especially the music box as Reuge creates it, is about true luxury, Kupper says. It is creating something that will be cherished because it’s unique.

Luxury isn’t about thoughtlessly churning out products with gold and diamonds, he says. “A true luxury product is something which you will keep with you because you cherish it, and which you will eventually even give to the next generation.”

A chiffchaff and a bellboy hat

To illustrate the kind of details Reuge considers when creating a music box, Kupper describes the box given to Obama by the emir of Qatar. Although the box was made in Switzerland, it had to be characteristically Qatari.

It thus included a mechanized Qatari chiffchaff, a songbird. It also harked back to the automaton designs of an ancient Arab polymath named Ismail al-Jazari.

The depth of thought behind Reuge’s work is also evident in the music boxes commissioned by the Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. In Tokyo, it’s a cultural custom to get married in a hotel, and the Peninsula Hotel is the most elite location for a marriage.

The hotel’s manager wanted a gift to give wedding couples. The gift had to be emblematic of the hotel and of this important event in their lives. Reuge crafted a white bellboy hat of leather and gold, with a musical cylinder inside.

(©Reuge SA)
A classically simple music box by Reuge. (©Reuge SA)
(©Reuge SA)
Reuge’s music boxes come in all shapes and sizes. (©Reuge SA)

The gift is a win-win for the hotel and for the couple, Kupper says. The manager wants something special to give them; they have paid a hefty bill for their wedding at the hotel and have celebrated an important moment there. As for the couple, they will want to share this moment, as well as its prestigious location, with people beyond the 50 or 100 who attended their wedding.

With this unique music box on the bride’s desk at work, for example, somebody may ask her, “‘What do you have there?’” She can respond, “‘Oh, you know, I got married at the Peninsula,’” and she can tell the story again, says Kupper.

Taking on an apprentice is like entering ‘a very serious marriage’

Out of some 40 people who work at Reuge, about 30 work hands-on to craft the music boxes. The training for making each part of the music box has to be done from master to apprentice. It’s very specific; it’s neither taught at colleges, nor is it applicable to any other career.

When one of its artisans is nearing retirement, Reuge finds an apprentice to start five years of training under that artisan to take his or her place. It takes five years to “really do a good thing and do it consistently every day and not just by coincidence,” Kupper says. “We cannot allow today a good job, tomorrow a medium [job]. So by the time you are really sufficiently trained, you know how to do it [well] every day — I wouldn’t say with your eyes closed, but almost.”

(©Reuge SA)
(©Reuge SA)

An apprentice who is mature, about 30 years old with a spouse and kids, is preferred. “Because if you have that person, that person will stay with you, typically,” Kupper says. “If I have the kid from 18 just out of school, it’s quite normal that he wants to discover things, do other things, move around and everything. In our field, once you learn music-box [making], there is no other place to go to. It’s not like the watch industry, where you go to another watch brand, and that’s it.”

“It’s again like a child at the Christmas tree… Our job is to basically turn on that sparkle again in the eyes of the people receiving the piece.” –Kurt Kupper, Reuge CEO

“So that’s why it’s like a very serious marriage, because you know you’re not going to get easily divorced,” Kupper says.

But it’s a happy marriage. The pride of craftsmanship is strong in the workshop.

Whether it’s a $300 piece commissioned by an old farmer for his wife or a million-dollar gift for a king, what gives these craftsmen the most pleasure is creating something that will be cherished.

Kupper describes the feeling Reuge wishes to evoke in the richest of patrons, the people who already have everything: “It’s again like a child at the Christmas tree… Our job is to basically turn on that sparkle again in the eyes of the people receiving the piece.”

Reuge will display its work at the Luxury Home & Design Show in Vancouver, June 21–24, 2018. The show is hosted by Magnifissance’s sister media, Taste of Life. Learn more about the Luxury Home & Design Show.