Europe

Music makers: Swiss music boxes endure in electronic age

  • 13 December 2015
  • From the section Europe
Media captionMusic box makers

Devices for playing music come and go - cassette tapes, MP3 players and CDs have all had their time as digital downloads take over.

But one system invented some 200 years ago lives on.

In the mountains of western Switzerland, one company still makes automatic music boxes for enthusiasts around the world.

Reuge is considered the last major manufacturer of a traditional device that once rivalled watches as one of Switzerland's greatest exports.

Founded in 1865 by watchmaker Charles Reuge, the company has survived the advent of the phonograph - as well as more recent inventions - to continue making music boxes in a small factory in Sainte-Croix.

'Out of its time'

The village once specialised in the industry and had dozens of cylinder music box manufacturers, but they have all but disappeared.

Media captionListen to 19th Century Swiss musical box
Image copyright Florence Kennard
Image caption Many residents in Sainte-Croix, high in the Jura Mountains, have family connections to the music box industry

"It's a musical medium out of its time," says Jean-Claude Piguet, author of the book The Music Box Makers, The History of the Music Box in Sainte-Croix.

"I think it's interesting that an ancient art is capable of adapting and renewing itself to suit modern tendencies."

The Reuge factory in Sainte-Croix, which is the subject of a new short documentary by UK film-maker Florence Kennard, has been celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Inside, a team of fewer than 40 workers use specially-made machinery to produce rotating barrels with pins that will pluck finely-tuned steel combs to play melodies.

It is a skill that is not taught at college but instead passed down through the generations in Sainte-Croix.

'Magic never leaves'

Powered by springs, some music boxes can have tens of thousands of pins and play a variety of 'airs' - from Mozart to the Star Wars theme.

Hearing the comb play its first notes can be "spectacular", says music box maker Didier Cote, "because each and every musical box comb is unique".

Image copyright Mechanical Music
Image caption A woman and child listen to a music box in about 1850 when the devices were one the principal forms of entertainment

Cylinder music boxes reached the height of their popularity in the second half of the 19th Century when they were a principal form of entertainment.

More common nowadays are the novelty musical jewellery boxes, perhaps with a pirouetting ballerina inside, given to children.

Media captionMusic boxes: How do they work?

But enthusiasm for the traditionally crafted machine endures.

"Music boxes are somehow quite captivating," says Alison Biden, chairwoman of the Musical Box Society of Great Britain.

"There's something a bit magical about these bits and pieces of metal.

"For the people who get caught by it, that magic never leaves them."

It is not just the traditional collectors who are keeping the industry alive.

Kurt Kupper, chief executive of Reuge, says the company is increasingly looking to the luxury market in order to compete with cheaper manufacturers in Asia.

While a standard new Reuge music box starts at around £250 (€350), more complex creations can go for up to £200,000 - such as one purchased recently by President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.

Image caption Kurt Kupper is trying to change the image of music boxes
Image copyright Reuge
Image caption Reuge's coffee machine aims to replace the sound of coffee beans grinding with music box melodies

Many of the new customers are government officials from Asia and the Middle East who buy the products to present as gifts, says Mr Kupper.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge received a set of singing love birds as a wedding present by the Sultan of Oman, he says.

The company is also developing new ideas for the music box in order to modernise its image - from a box that plays the theme tunes from Mission Impossible, James Bond and The Godfather (and costs around £11,000) to a coffee machine that plays a melody while making an espresso.

But at the heart of each of these products is the same basic system of a rotating metal cylinder with protruding pins.

Mr Piguet believes music boxes are still popular precisely of this reason - because they are so "completely disconnected with the means available today for producing music".

"It's charming in a world that evolves quickly - that invents, throws away - music boxes are always there," he says.

"And they still have a lot of years ahead of them, I believe."

Watch the trailer for Florence Kennard's film Automatic Dreams here.

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