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What are Limoges Boxes?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Limoges boxes are highly collectible pieces of decorated porcelain imported from the French city of Limoges. Most Limoges boxes are decorated by hand and kiln-fired between each application of paint. Some high-end Limoges boxes are further enhanced with 22-karat gold inlay or precious stones. Metal hinges for the lids are added at a later date, which means the fit may not be the same for every Limoges box.

For centuries, only Chinese artisans could produce white porcelain from a material known as hard paste clay. European craftsmen only had a soft paste clay, which left their porcelain creations dangerously brittle and rather dull in color. In the early 19th century, a deposit of kaolin (hard paste) clay was discovered in a French mountain range. French porcelain artisans were at last able to produce a product similar to Chinese porcelain in strength and color. The city of Limoges became the center of porcelain artistry, much like Dresden in Germany.

Although the craftsmen working in Limoges produced other porcelain items, such as dinnerware and cups, it was the Limoges boxes which became most popular among French consumers. Limoges boxes often contained small pieces of jewelry, perfumes, snuff tobacco or even secret messages and love letters. There was certainly a decorative element to these early Limoges boxes, but many people considered them a functional part of their personal wardrobe.

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The popularity of Limoges boxes in France waned over the 19th century, as other more practical storage containers took their place. Very few Americans even knew of their existence, since Limoges boxes were not imported out of France. Only those who travelled to Europe had the opportunity to bring a few pieces back to the United States. Wholesale importation of genuine Limoges boxes would not begin in earnest until the 1950s. Reproduction Limoges boxes also began to enter the mainstream consumer market in the 1960s.

French law only requires one stamp on genuine Limoges boxes, essentially verifying that the piece was indeed made in the city of Limoges. Other than that stamp, different porcelain manufacturers are free to place any markings they choose. Because Limoges boxes are very labor-intensive, many experts suggest looking for the use of multiple colors and intricate details for authenticity. Makers of cheaper Limoges boxes tend to use a limited amount of paint to reduce firing time. Quality Limoges boxes often sell between US$100 and US$600, but reproductions can sell for as little as US$5.

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