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Note Worthy : Antique or Modern, Music Boxes Spin Out Tunes of Craftsmanship for Collectors

March 27, 1993|VALERIE ORLEANS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Music boxes have a way of unlocking distant memories: of being soothed to sleep with a gentle lullaby; of watching ballerinas or carousel ponies spin on a jewelry box; of a favorite place in the imagination.

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Whether the thrill is in finding and restoring the antique versions with their delicate hand-detailed works or in choosing the new versions in an array of styles, there appears to be no shortage of people attached to music boxes.

"Within the past decade, there's been an increasing interest in music boxes," said James Baggs, owner of several Orange County stores that specialize in them. "When I opened my first gift shop in 1975, there were maybe about a couple hundred different varieties. Today, there are thousands of styles."

Just as music boxes gradually took on a larger role in Baggs' life, they worked their way into the center of the lives of Chris and Kathleen Eric.

It was never the Erics' intention to devote much time to restoring antique music boxes, but their love and appreciation for these delicate instruments became a central presence in their lives.

"I was working as a musician, performing in Europe and the United States, and I developed an interest in music boxes," said Chris Eric, owner of Antique Music Box Restoration in Costa Mesa.

"I'd always been interested in mechanical devices, and in fact, I was particularly interested in clocks. I started fixing clocks and gradually became involved in repairing music boxes, too. Much of the mechanics involved are similar, and things just sort of evolved until I found myself in this business."

Today, the former president of the International Musical Box Society (which has 3,000 members worldwide) and his wife devote many hours to restoring music boxes.

Since they established their business in 1968, they've seen almost every imaginable horror inflicted on the instruments. There are folks who have placed plants on top of the boxes (water seeped in, destroying the mechanical work as well as the inlaid wood); some have tinkered with the mechanical devices in an effort to make them play again.

"People generally bring their music boxes to us when they're broken," Eric said. "It would be much better if they regularly maintained them instead. Oiling them every five years or so could eliminate a lot of problems."

Collectors, of course, are more aware of the value of the music boxes and tend to take better care of them. Eric says Americans have been slow to appreciate the beauty and value of these musical devices, unlike collectors in Europe and Japan.

The first music boxes were made in Switzerland about 200 years ago. The first documentation of the boxes was made in Geneva in 1796 by a company named Fauve. Because of their Swiss origins, the earliest music boxes tend to play Swiss folk tunes. By the early 1800s, the music boxes also began to be built in such countries as France, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Because the first boxes were made by clockmakers, they were very small--about the size of a small pocket watch. As the technology improved, the size of the boxes grew.

With most music boxes (including modern ones), the sound is created as a cylinder rotates. Pins placed in the cylinder strike against the "teeth," which are set above or to the side of the cylinder. This creates the note.

The golden period for music boxes was in the 1830s, when some boxes featured up to 237 teeth and more than 5,000 pins, creating music that is difficult to duplicate now.

"This period of time was when music boxes were as good as it got," Eric said. "The music they play is absolutely breathtaking."

Because all the pins were placed by hand, the cost to re-create such instruments makes the price prohibitive. Modern versions, while less intricate, are also less costly, making it possible for them to be enjoyed by a greater number of people.

Modern music boxes range from a simple $18 version to upward of $17,000, according to Baggs. The most affordable ones generally have about 18 movements or notes, while the finer boxes often have 36 to 72 notes.

One of the most respected names in music box manufacturing belongs to a Swiss company: Reuge.

"They are the Rolls-Royce of the industry," Baggs said. "They set the standard for the others."

Expect to pay for that quality, though. Most Reuge music boxes start about $200 and can go upward from there. They usually look like a traditional music box, made of either inlaid wood or glass.

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Baggs' own appreciation of music boxes grew slowly.

After living in Tokyo for 15 years, he opened a gift shop in Orange that featured imported items, including music boxes. When Baggs first opened the shop, he stocked two dozen music boxes. In no time, they were gone. So he ordered more. They too sold quickly. Then customers started asking for more selections. He opened his first store devoted solely to music boxes in South Coast Plaza in 1978.

He now has five stores, all called the Music Box, and each carries about 1,200 styles.

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