Like many other children, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ home in the countryside. On particularly boring days, I would spend hours rummaging through my grandma’s things. While doing that, I often observed her music box and enjoyed the beautiful tune it produced.
Years have gone by, my grandparents are no longer alive, and I spend my summers either working or traveling, but the sound of a music box still awakens something in me. Recently, I decided to learn more about music boxes, and I found out that vintage specimens can be quite valuable. I also found many other interesting facts about music boxes, so keep reading to learn more!
The History of Music Box
The first music boxes as we know them were produced in the 18th century. However, they trace their roots back to the 9th century, when the Banu Musa brothers, three Persian inventors, invented the first mechanical music instrument, a hydraulically powered organ.
Then, in the 13th century, a bell ringer from the Flanders region invented a cylinder with pins that control cams, which then hit the bells and produce the sounds.
In the late 16th century, Flemish clockmaker Nicholas Vallin made a wall clock that could play multiple tuned bells. Two centuries later in France, a sound-producing clock was designed, but it didn’t play bells. Instead, it played tuned steel prongs.
In 1796, Antoine Favre-Salomon replaces the bells and prongs with a comb with multiple pre-tuned metallic notes. This invention could play more complex and varied sounds and it was considered to be one of the first music boxes.
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, an invention that greatly impacted the music box industry. The phonograph later evolved into a gramophone, and it enabled the reproduction of any sound.
This is when the music box production boomed. At first, music boxes were massively produced in Switzerland because Swiss clockmakers had the tools and knowledge necessary for both the clock making and the music box making.
From Switzerland, the music box popularity quickly spread to Europe and the USA. That’s when the music boxes became more functional since they got drawers and a lock, which were used to store jewelry and other valuable items.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the jewelry music box spread from West to East, Asia in particular. Japan quickly adopted this technology, and soon, the Japanese jewelry box became the most popular form of music box all around the world.
In 2019, a Taiwan tech company Tevofy Technology Ltd. made the first mechanical music box that can be controlled by an app. Its name is Muro Box, short for “Music Robot in a Box”.
Music boxes continue to evolve even today, but the Japanese music boxes remain the most popular and most valuable, especially for those collectors that are only interested in beautiful vintage music boxes.
The Manufacturers And Styles of Japan Music Box
Sankyo Seiki became the largest manufacturer of music boxes, not only in Japan but also in the United States and the rest of the world. Sankyo Seiki started producing music boxes after World War II. They also produced individual music box parts and supplied other manufacturers.
This company still exists today, but under a slightly different name, Nidec Sankyo. It moved from making music boxes to making spindle motors that power the hard drives. However, Sankyo still makes a limited number of “Orpheus” music boxes each year, but they can’t really compare to the old Sankyo music boxes.
Sankyo Seiki made music boxes in several different styles:
- Wooden rectangular music boxes – These boxes were Sankyo’s most popular music boxes, often lacquered and painted with simple, yet interesting designs. They could play a lovely Japanese tune or Western music.
- Porcelain music figurines- Sankyo also made porcelain figurines that looked like any other regular figurines, but when twisted in a certain way, they would start playing music just like the normal music box.
- Miniature music boxes – These music boxes were so small that they were worn on a keychain and came in many various designs.
- Hexagonal music boxes- These music boxes had six sides and were usually made of brass or plated silver. They were often painted to show gentle and romantic motifs.
- Piano-shaped music boxes- Sankyo also made piano-shaped music boxes. They were a bit harder to find than the other music boxes and were made from wood and metal.
The Value of Antique Japan Music Box
The good news is, that you can easily find a vintage Japanese music box in a good condition for $15-$30. They can be found practically anywhere, on Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and many other online and physical stores.
However, some sellers value their Japanese music boxes at more than $1000. They are usually in excellent condition, rare to find, come with their original key, and maybe even have secret compartments.
Many Japanese black lacquer music boxes were beautifully ornated and specifically made for the rich individuals, and even for the members of the royal family. Such music boxes will normally cost much more than the regular Sankyo music box.
A vast majority of antique Japanese music boxes for sale come with a working mechanism, but it is possible to find these music boxes that lack their mechanism, and their price is significantly lower.
Valuable Japan Music Boxes
Here are the most valuable and notable Japanese music boxes:
This wooden rectangular music box made by Sankyo comes in great condition, and it was estimated to be produced in the early 1950s. It can play 3 tunes: Grand Waltz by F.F. Chopin, Dream of Love by F. Liszt, and Waltz by J. Brahms. Its price is $1,295.00.
Also made by Sankyo, this unusual wooden music box has a gold crude oil pump model on the lid. It was made sometime during the 1960s and it is in a nice condition. Its price is $695.00.
This beautiful jewelry box comes in excellent condition. It has a butterfly made of true fired enamel, and it is lined with beautiful blue velvet. Its price is $450.00.
This Japanese wind-up music box is a perfect example of porcelain music figurines. It looks like a regular porcelain figurine of Snow White and Dopey, but it actually plays the “Whistle While We Work” tune. Its price is $299.44.
This lovely jewelry box is embellished with Nishijin silk, a fabric of the highest quality. Inside, this music box is lined with purple velvet. The overall condition of the music box is good, with some minor damages to the fabric, which is expected for an item of that age. The price is $65.35.
This piano-shaped music box is made of cast metal and it has a small Cupid angel on its lid. It plays the “More” song, and its inside is lined with fine red velvet. Its price is a mere $49.00.
This wooden rectangular music box contains a ballerina spinning around as the music plays. It is lined with red velvet and three mirrors. Its price is $189.00.
This miniature keychain music box comes in its original box and it plays the “Raindrops Keep” tune. It is extremely old, as it was made by a Fuji brand, which was before Sankyo started manufacturing its music boxes. The price of this keychain music box is $20.00.
How do You Clean an Old Music Box?
Every music-box collector wants to keep their collection well-maintained, and there are some tips on how to clean old music boxes without damaging them. The music box should be cleaned with warm (not hot) water and a mild dish detergent.
Always use a soft cloth to clean old music boxes. For spaces that are hardly reachable, use a toothbrush with soft bristles.
Don’t overdo it – it is enough to thoroughly clean your music box once a year. You can gently clean the dust with a damp cloth in between the annual cleanings.
Music boxes have a fascinating history. They are more than just some old decorations. Music boxes were used to store jewelry, important documents, and similar items. They were a prime example of true craftsmanship and ingenuity.
Antique Japanese music boxes aren’t as rare or expensive as some other antique items, but they are still highly valued by collectors. Their value will only go up as time goes by, and there are already some vintage Japanese music boxes that sell for well over $1.000.
Make sure to buy one of these music boxes while they are still widely available and affordable, and if you have any questions regarding antique Japanese music boxes, feel free to leave a comment below!