Update! Karl Griesbaum Music Box Key is Found!

This week is going to be a short update because I was excited to record a video to show you guys. Remember when I wrote about the Karl Griesbaum musical bird box a couple weeks ago? And how I wrote I couldn’t find the key to the music box? Well, do I have exciting news! I found it and it’s bird-shaped!

The artist could’ve just designed a normal wind-up key but they decided to keep it within the bird theme. I love small ornamental touches like this. It really ties the entire product up! A little drawback is that the key can’t be kept in the hole because it sticks out beyond the foot of the box. You’ll have to remove it after winding it up. I suppose that’s how it got lost in a box of knick knacks after my grandma sorted through everything. That lady loves to organize!

Key in music box.
The box doesn’t lay flat when the key is inserted. Image by Samantha Yeung.

Regardless, I’m happy I finally get to hear my grandpa’s music box. It might need some fixing up because it chirps a little slower than the refurbished ones that are posted on YouTube, but overall not bad! I was expecting it to not chirp at all.

Karl Griesbaum Singing Bird Box in Action! Uploaded by Samantha Yeung.

Besides the sound, the bird itself is starting to show some wear and tear. When I cranked the key and the bird popped out, one of its eyes flew off. I guess the glue is starting to become brittle and will eventually chip away. It’s blind in one eye for now. I’m planning on doing some research in crafting with feathers to see what glue would be best to use. Let me know if you have any recommendations!

Music box bird eye and feather
The poor bird is blind in one eye! 😦 Image by Samantha Yeung.

Bottom line, I’m pretty happy! This music box is becoming my favourite thing from my grandpa’s collection. I haven’t gone through everything yet but I hope I can find more treasures with this sort of charm!

Qing Dynasty Silk Embroidered Panels

I’m a little late on updating this week because the history of Chinese silk embroidery dates back thousands of years with many different styles and schools. I wanted to take more time to do some further research to make sure I was describing the right timeframe and style of embroidery.

At the beginning of my research, I was told that these pieces were from the Qing Dynasty. But, based on what I found about the Sixi Wawa last week, there was a cultural bleed from the Ming Dynasty to Qing! So artistic interests and practice could easily have been passed down. That grey area could make it difficult to date these pieces. In other words, research brought more questions than answers. Once I have more time to do further research, I’ll post an update!

Anyway, worries aside, I took photos of two embroidered pieces.

What were they made of?

The panels and sleeves are typically made of silk threads sewn into silk fabric. The fabric can also be dyed a certain colour, but they are typically beige. Occasionally, gold thread would be used on its own or woven into the silk thread to give the piece some glimmer. Typical stitches that were used include the seed stitch, satin stitch, Pekinese stitch, and couching stitch. I don’t have a picture of the seed stitch. This article by Marla Mallett has some great information on the seed and Pekinese stitches!

Currently, these types of panels are priced based on the condition of the stitches (if they’re still intact), the colour vibrancy of the threads (they are not colourfast), the colours that were used (bright yellow, purple, and red were reserved for the royal family) and the condition of the silk fabric (presence of any stains, pulls, and pills). Some pieces were intended to be appliqué on clothing which could show some wear and tear. Also, the fact that these pieces are organic makes fixing stains and preserving colour very difficult. So you’re very fortunate if you own a brightly coloured piece!

What were they used for?

Historically, the royal family would employ hundreds of embroiderers to create pieces and clothing for them. For example, some of these requests included clothing for the royal family, palace decor, and costumes for the royal theatre troop.

As you can see, these panels and sleeves are very versatile. During the Qing Dynasty, they were used as wall hangings or the two reflected pieces were separated and sewn into clothing as decorative panels. This practice of decorating walls, pillars, and screens was also done throughout the past dynastic periods as well!

I also found a panel on the website for The Metropolitan Museum of Art called Fairy and Crane. This panel is dated to the 18th Century during the Qing Dynasty (although, the metadata states it’s from the Ming Dynasty as well… Remember what I said about overlapping cultures?) and is sewn in the same style as the ones we own. Based on the condition of the colours and the type of stitches that were used, I’d say I could safely date my grandpa’s panels to the early Qing Dynasty as well.

Note: This is just an estimated date. I’m not a professional!

Panel, first half of the 18th century China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Silk, pearls, coral; on silk; 25 3/4 x 14 3/4 in. (65.41 x 37.47 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1925 (25.59.1) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/68449

I encourage collectors to also check out The MET! The website has some great pieces! It’s also a great resource for collectors as all their pieces are dated in dynasty and century.

I’ll have to say goodbye for now and update with a part 2 later on. I’ve only skimmed the very surface of a very deep and interesting history. I’ll try to keep all my updates to Sunday morning but research-intensive topics like these might push me behind schedule. We’ll see what the future brings! See you next week!

Vintage Miniature Daisho Set

This week I wanted to showcase something cute. Compared to the previous weeks’ items, this one is more of a novelty toy. Decades ago, my grandpa went on a trip to Japan. During his trip, he picked up a miniature daisho letter opener set. These letter openers resemble a katana (the longer sword) and wakizashi (the shorter sword).

Some definitions:

  • daisho/daishō: (大小), literally big-little, refers to the pair of big and little swords.
  • katana: (刀 or かたな), a long, curved sword with a single-edged blade, commonly used by samurai.
  • wakizashi (脇差), worn with a katana, symbolizes the wearer is a samurai.
The miniature daisho set, complete with katana, wakizashi, and wooden stand. Image by Samantha Yeung.

Both swords can be used to open letters. The blades aren’t sharp enough to cut you, but they can smoothly run through the edge of an envelope.

These swords are commonly sold as toys or as a novelty office conversation starter. If you search phrases such as “katana letter opener”, “miniature katana”, “toy katana”, you’d see website listings for these swords. I’ve also read that these swords are a popular gift for Japan’s Children’s Day holiday!

These swords are commonly sold as a single sword, others (like this set) has both the katana and wakizashi on a stand. I’ve also seen a set of three swords!

So how do you display them properly?

According to Paul Chen Hanwei, from Paul Chen Hanwei Swords, typically in times of peace, a katana would be sheathed. The blade is also stored pointing up with the handle on the left. An interesting tidbit he mentioned is that the katana is typically held in the samurai’s right hand. In times of war, the handle would be displayed on the right side which makes it easier to grab. So, if a handle points right, it symbolizes hostility. When it points left, it symbolizes peace. The wakizashi would then be mounted underneath the katana in the same fashion.

So if you want a passive-aggressive way to subtly show your coworkers that you dislike them, point the handles to the right. Not this image though! I don’t hold any hostility toward you guys!

I placed the handles to the left. Let’s chat and be friends! Image by Samantha Yeung.

How you display your swords can symbolize different things, but many times, a sword could be displayed unsheathed for aesthetic purposes. The sheath would be stored underneath the blade, rather than a wakizashi. Also, other hobbyists prefer to display their larger swords underneath the smaller swords. According to Samurai University, the smaller sword (tanto) would be displayed on the top shelf because that is the sword that is removed first when they are placed on the stand. The larger sword (daito) is then placed on the bottom shelf.

So it appears that there is an agreement on handle symbolism, but displaying swords depend on how you were taught.

More definitions:

  • tanto/tantō (短刀), a type of short sword, worn with a katana or another longer sword.
  • daito/daitō (大刀), literally large/long sword, not to be confused with daisho.
  • shoto/shotō (小刀), literally small/short sword, describes short swords in general. Combining the words daito and shoto creates the word daisho (大小).

This is honestly such a cute letter opener. If you ever have the opportunity to buy one of these, I highly recommend it! You don’t have to display it in your office, it’ll look nice on a bookshelf, fireplace, display cabinet, by your TV… The list goes on! Just remember to dust it once in a while. It looks the best when the metal is shiny and polished!

Karl Griesbaum Singing Bird Cage

This bird cage was actually sitting in my grandma’s display cabinet for decades. When I was little, sometimes she would take this out and show us. However, this was a rare treat because this bird cage meant a lot to her and she would rather leave it untouched. Buuut, during those couple decades, it would literally be collecting dust! Before I went to take photographs, I had to dust off their feathers with a very tiny and very soft watercolour brush. It felt like delicate surgical work. I was so anxious about poking the head off or scraping off a feather. But the good thing is none of that happened and I managed to clean most of it off!

Last time, when I wrote about the Karl Griesbaum bird music box, I couldn’t demonstrate how it worked because it didn’t have a wind up key. Fortunately, this cage came with the key attached! I’m a little hesitant on winding it up. You’ll see restorers and collectors wind up their cages many times. The most I’m comfortable with is two. But anyway, I recorded a video of how it sounds!

Karl Griesbaum Singing Bird Cage uploaded by Samantha Yeung

The history of the Karl Griesbaum musical bird cages actually is more obscure compared to the music box. Possibly because logically, if you have a pet bird, you would put it in a cage. Even if it was free roaming in your house, it probably has a cage to sleep in. On the other hand, the idea of a tiny bird popping out of a silver box to sing to you is charming. Maybe that’s why the boxes were more popular. The other factor is that Bontems bird cages from France appear to be more common. The birds look more realistic and models can come in life-like sizes. They also behave and sound chirpier and twitchy (you know how small birds move in a twitchy manner?), basically more realistic overall compared to the Griesbaum models.

Antique Bontems giant singing bird cage uploaded by Singing bird boxes

The birds can appear very lifelike! Here is another model from Bontems. Very cute and fluffy.

Bontems Singing Bird Cage uploaded by Skevoukloges

The mechanisms for this bird cage is very similar to the bird music box that I covered last week. The sound is produced by whistles and bellows. All mechanical and no electricity required! In the video below, restorer, appraiser, and collector Troy Duncan explains how the mechanism works.

Antique singing bird cage (Bontems) mechanism explained uploaded by Singing bird boxes

I believe my grandpa acquired both the bird box and the bird cage at the same time. They were stored together in my grandma’s display cabinet for decades. The way the birds are put together and how they sound also seem to be pretty much the same.

Unfortunately there will be no history blurb because historical information is flooded by auction listings. But I hope the videos were interesting enough.

See you next week!

Karl Griesbaum Music Bird Box

I was digging through my grandpa’s collection again, trying to find something really cool and I came across this music box. After some research, I’m pretty sure it was produced by the German firm Karl Griesbaum around the 1940’s. Similar ones as described by antique dealer Troy Duncan are also dated approximately 1940’s. Unfortunately I don’t have the means to test the materials or the resources to work with an appraiser, but based off of other similar boxes by the Griesbaum firm, this box appears to be crafted in sterling silver with a glossy enamel finish. The image is also likely to be handpainted.

Closed music box.
Closed music box.

Another unfortunate thing is that I couldn’t find the wind up key. But, luckily, there are plenty of amazing videos on YouTube that show the music boxes in action. This video by nakrul987 on YouTube really shows the mechanics of the music box. It is quite the automaton! But in general, you just crank the wind up key on the bottom of the box and push the switch to open the lid.

six cam singing bird box movement uploaded by nakrul987

A little history lesson for those who are curious.

According to Flights of Fancy. Mechanical Singing Birds written by Christian & Sharon Bailly, The firm was founded by a clock maker named Karl Griesbaum. Griesbaum began his journey into mechanical music boxes after he was asked to replicate a Swiss snuffbox. These boxes became popular with locals and tourists and cemented his name in music box and snuff box manufacturing. Together with his five children, the Griesbaum family manufactured three grades of music boxes, depending on the materials and the quality of song.

The family felt lasting success until 1988, after Griesbaum passed away. ­­­The art of music boxes was not an interest to young Germans who were beginning to join the work force. So, the firm was sold to Siegfried Wendel. Wendel later on would create Mechanische Musikwerke Manufaktur GmbH in 1991, which to this day continues to manufacture bird music boxes.

I referenced a book but it seems like it’s been out of print for a while. I actually found an excerpt from the website Museum Collection/Музей Собрание. This is a museum in Moscow that focuses on the collection of vintage and culturally significant antiques.

Now more recently, these music boxes appear sleek, rather than ornate. How It’s Made actually featured the Swiss company Reuge in one of their episodes! Prior to Griesbaum’s success, bird music boxes and snuff boxes has a long history in Switzerland and Reuge began manufacturing in 1865! I thought it would be appropriate to find a video on a current Swiss manufacturer.

How Its Made – 635 Mechanical Singing Birds uploaded by How Its Made

My grandpa seemed to appreciate cute ornate vintage items.

Bird popping out from the music box.
Chirp chirp!

I think anything detailed and mechanical drew his interest. That might also explain his appreciation for insects since he specialized in entomology in university. Personally, I would never consider studying insects. I remember receiving a search-and-find book from Scholastic book orders in public school. It was to replace the book I actually ordered which was out of stock by the time they processed my order. So, I ended up with a giant bug book.

I never looked at it since the day I had to pick it up at school.

I have to admit though, insects are interesting little creatures (or occasionally, scary huge creatures). When you observe how insects move and how their features are connected to their body, they also appear like automata. Have you ever watched a fly clean their legs? Or how spiders crawl? (I know, they’re arachnids) They seem to steadily move in a rhythmic pattern, just like mechanical wind up toys. I guess studying insects carries the same appeal as collecting little mechanical music boxes.

By the way, Karl Greisbaum also produced mechanical singing bird cages! This will be featured next week!

Dec 2, 2019 UPDATE:

I ended up finding the key to the bird box! I wrote about it in a separate blog post here! The bird finally found its voice after several decades! 🙂

See you next time!

1930’s Voigtländer Camera

For the inaugural post, I wanted to write about something special. I am excited to share my grandpa’s circa 1930’s vintage Voigtländer camera!

Unnamed Voigtländer 1930's camera.
Unnamed Voigtländer 1930’s camera. Box contains camera, shutter release cable, metal slides. Image copyright 2019 Samantha Yeung.

This camera appears to be an unnamed 9×12 Voigtländer folding plate camera. It also seems to be very similar to the Voigtländer Avus. Like the Avus, this camera has double extended bellows and a similar Anastigmat 13.5 cm f/4.5 lens. But, it does not indicate that it is the 13.5 cm f/4.5 Anastigmat Scopar lens. The brilliant finder is also mounted on the top right corner, rather than the centre. This camera also does not have a timed shutter release. I tried to find the exact model of camera through auction sites, camera wikis, and online videos and the closest camera I seemed to find was the Avus. Was this camera a prototype model? Limited edition? Please let me know if you know what this is called! I’m really curious.

When we found this camera in his collection, it was stored in a leather box, along with 3 metal sheets and a shutter release cable. One sheet contained a glass plate, I’m assuming to hold film. When out of the box, the camera is neatly folded up. With a press of the unfolding button, the front cover opens, revealing the lens and the folded bellows.

Opening the camera.
Opening the camera. The camera pops open when the button on the top of the box is pressed down. Image copyright 2019 Samantha Yeung.

The camera is pulled out of its box by squeezing two metal grips under the black metal frame, then pulling it along the metal tracks. Now, the bellows is extended. If you wanted to continue to adjust your image, you can extend the bellows further or vertically/horizontally. You just need to rotate the knobs next to the tracks and on the black metal frame. The sports finder can also be swung away from the camera.

Extending the bellows.
The bellows can be extended by squeezing the metal prongs and pulling it along the tracks. Image copyright 2019 Samantha Yeung.

If you wanted to take a picture, you simply swap out the back cover with a metal plate. The plate would hold a photosensitive sheet. Once this plate is inside the camera, the photographer can release the shutter with the cable and take a picture!

I was told that my grandpa was an avid photographer. Apparently, he appreciated very technical and detailed forms of art. We actually found many more cameras in his collection such as a Yashica box camera and a couple of retro SLRs but personally, I thought this one was the coolest. Very different from the DSLRs and our smartphones!

The wooden frame and leather box of the Voigtländer also gives such an uncommon sensory feeling. The soft knocks and thuds the box makes as you open and close the lid is different than the taps and squeaks of cold plastic packaging. The wooden clacks and metallic taps really sets in stone that you’re handling a mechanical camera, without an ounce of digital technology. I’m getting way too purple prosey but the sensory feedback from handing the Voigtländer really is a satisfying experience. It really lets you appreciate how far technology has evolved!