The Swiss music box maker plays timeless melody in the age of iTunes.
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.
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, as if 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.
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.
They can be beautifully personalized. Reuge draws out the personalities and passions of both the giver and receiver when creating a music box as a gift. The box thus commemorates and strengthens a bond between two people.
When a head of state is commissioning a gift, for example, Kupper will ask, “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?’”
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. The music box is a monument as well as a gift.
“It’s not about catalogues,” Kupper says. It’s about creating an heirloom, something that will be cherished and passed down, something that represents a story, whether it’s the story of a king or of an ordinary couple who want their descendants to feel connected to them and remember them.
Reuge is considered the premier music-box maker in the world. Although its 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.
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.”
Whether it’s a $300 piece commissioned by an old farmer for his wife or a million-dollar gift for a king, what gives Reuge’s craftsmen the most pleasure is creating something that will be cherished, Kupper says.
Taking on an apprentice is like entering a 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.”
An apprentice who is mature, about 30 years old with a spouse and children, 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 is a big commitment on both sides that’s not easily broken, like a marriage, says Kupper. It’s a fitting analogy for a artisanal trade that prides itself on romance, love, and the strengthening of bonds between people.