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The Swiss Music Box Twirls Toward Year 200

The village of Sainte-Croix celebrates the mechanism's birthday with an open house of artisans

The sky is blue and clear, the Alpine peaks snowcapped and majestic, and the forest fragrant and fresh with morning dew. Suddenly the sweet, light notes of a clear metallic sound drift across the village of Sainte-Croix.

A woman opens her second-story window and smiles as the gentle melody greets her ears. It is a familiar sound in this village nestled in the verdant Lake Geneva region of Switzerland, for Sainte-Croix is the home of the music box.

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This year residents are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the music box. Through December, individual artisans, cabinetmakers, and the Reuge Music Company have opened their doors to the public.

Third-generation craftsman

The natives of Sainte-Croix are proud of their heritage, for the art of making music boxes has been passed from generation to generation with loving dedication.

In his 80s, Fredy Baud is still a member of Les Artisans du Reve - Craftsmen of Dreams. Like his father and grandfather before him, he makes music boxes. He is happy to invite visitors into his shop and go through how the movements, from comb to cylinder, are made.

He explains: "One hundred years ago, Antoine Favre, a watchmaker in Geneva, began making what he called a 'gadget,' which he incorporated as a musical movement into watches, perfume, bottles, and pendants."

Stopping to wind a music box, Mr. Baud asks, "Doesn't this story need a musical accompaniment?" The delicate melody of Chopin is a gentle background for his memories.

He muses, "I wonder if Favre realized he was fathering nearly two centuries of mechanical dreams.

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"In 1796, craftsmen in Sainte-Croix began fitting the musical movements into boxes. First, everything was simply made, but in time the cylinders were designed to play several tunes, and the boxes became more ornate. Soon Sainte-Croix was full glory."

At that time, music boxes represented 10 percent of the total volume of Swiss exports. Sainte-Croix was thriving, and its artisans were designing everything from tiny gemlike music boxes to beautifully crafted wooden boxes with intricate inlay of wood, gold, even diamonds.

"Orders came from around the world - from the shah of Persia to the imperial courts of Russia and China," Baud's daughter, Arlette, a fourth-generation musicmaker says. She also manages a jewel of a music-box museum, The Baud.

An imaginative Frenchman took the little bird that popped up in the music box, and carefully glued, feather by real feather, plumage on the miniature robin.

"There was also great interest in the automata - ceramic figures that move as the hidden music box within plays a classic or romantic tune.

"Remember," she says, "there was no gramophone. Edison hadn't invented it yet, so families who loved music, but couldn't play an instrument or attend concerts, could listen at home to a classical melody played on a music box. Some children even learned to dance by rehearsing to music provided by the little box on the mantel."

A visit to the shop of cabinetmakers Denis Margot and August Jacques reveals how the beautiful boxes were made. Mr. Jacques is a third-generation cabinetmaker.

"The wood must be a fit setting for the music," he explains. "Bottom, sides, and top fit together, but there are no nails, just a special glue. Often 10 layers of veneer are used."

Jacques, demonstrating with a 120-year-old saw, shows how the wood was prepared and sanded. Next, he uses soap on a buffer to remove even the slightest marks. The finished box is as smooth as satin.

"My father taught me everything," he says. "His motto was, 'If it isn't well done, begin again.' "

It was evident that his grandfather had started a line of perfectionists. In those earlier times, Sainte-Croix enjoyed its flurry of music. Watchmakers put music in their timepieces, jewelers make necklaces that at the touch of a winder played soft music, and movements were installed in ceramic figures (automatas) to play a tune as they moved. Music was literally in the air.

The music stopped

When Edison invented the phonograph, the melody came to a slow stop as interest in the music box diminished. The industry at Sainte-Croix almost disappeared after World War I and the crash of 1929.

"Our village was reeling," Jacques says. "A few artisans kept the trade alive, but others began making typewriters, cameras, and calculators."

Then, something amazing happened. American soldiers in Europe in World War II began sending music boxes "back home." Soon the United States became the No. 1 buyer.

In 1960, a Japanese company started mass-producing small movements, competing with the Swiss. The Reuge Music Company in Sainte-Croix accepted the challenge, and today it is the only company in the world offering a complete and diverse range of musical movements.

The Reuge Company is hosting large groups in celebration of the music-box anniversary. Members of the Music Box Society International were recently at the factory and museum. Their members, from all over the US, asked questions as the artisans demonstrated their techniques.

They learned that Charles Reuge settled in Sainte-Croix in 1865, and his goal was to make musical pocket watches. His son, Albert, opened the first workshop of musical instruments, at the same address where the company is today.

The Reuge Company tour is a melody of art and song. There are the dancing dolls, whose hand-painted faces are reminiscent of the 17th century. Their costumes are authentic, and their bodies move as the music spins a series of dreams.

All eyes and ears are alerted to the next room at the Reuge Museum. Its singing birds - the extraordinary mechanism, with its bellows and piston whistle - duplicates the bird song beautifully. The robin emerges from his hiding place in full song. He moves, cocks his head, even flutters his real feathered wings. The young visitors had to be pulled away to the next room; they would have watched the bird for hours.

The same interest was duplicated at the Bard Music Box and Automata Museum, where, in the gift shop, a small girl was winding a music box. A doll twirled around as music softly played.

The girl's blond curls bobbed up and down as she swayed to the melody. Soon she was gliding, and gradually started to waltz around the room. Obviously she was lost in dreams. As she danced by, she was smiling.

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