LONDON — For years, Jessica McCormack has collected antique wooden boxes that few others wanted. Once intended as lap desks or apothecary cabinets to be filled with medicines and potions, these carefully crafted 19th century coffers were no longer useful.
But the jewelry designer, who grew up in New Zealand, believed they could be given new lives if refurbished as jewelry boxes that would have the same heirloom-worthy appeal as her jewels. “They’re beautiful and they’re beautifully made,” Ms. McCormack said during an interview at her red brick townhouse, which encompasses store, studio and workshop, in the heart of London’s Mayfair neighborhood.
Earlier this year, she got around to creating her first box: a gift for Estelle, her third child and only daughter, on the occasion of her first birthday.
Ms. McCormack intended it as a home for the pieces her daughter will receive and buy as she gets older. “The box is based on the idea of when you give jewelry: It’s birthdays and anniversaries or special moments in time so I have places for her 18th and 21st birthdays,” she said. “It’s the idea that you can give someone something that’s not for then and there, but for some point in their lives.”
Other than a brass winged-heart plaque that was hand-engraved with Estelle’s name, the exterior of the box looks as plain as it ever did. Open it up, however, and the interior sections have been transformed. Each one, lined in pink faux-suede, was embroidered with personal symbols and messages by Hand & Lock, a London atelier founded in 1767 with a roster of clients that includes Burberry and Queen Elizabeth II. For example, a rural New Zealand landscape, complete with rainbow and pearl-adorned clouds, decorates the central compartment. A unicorn represents the Scottish roots of Ms. McCormack’s husband, and two sections, marked Wilf and Johnny, are reserved for future gifts from Estelle’s older brothers. Other sections are embroidered with mottos to live by: for example, C.S. Lewis’s “Courage, dear heart” is illustrated with, of course, a lion representing the author’s Aslan character.
ImageMs. McCormack says she wants the emotional intimacy of jewelry, which is often passed down from one generation to the next, to be expressed in the boxes.
Ms. McCormack says she wants the emotional intimacy of jewelry, which is often passed down from one generation to the next, to be expressed in the boxes.Credit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times
Ms. McCormack wants the emotional intimacy of jewelry, which is frequently loaded with memory and meaning and passed down from one generation to the next, to be expressed in the boxes. She described one client, who had inherited a great deal of jewelry from her mother but wished for more information about what the pieces had actually meant to her. “That’s why you’ve got to include a little note with the jewelry to pass on the provenance,” she said. “It’s not a monetary thing, it’s emotional.”
The first one she made for a client was a father’s commission for his 16-year-old daughter. Rather than sections predicting university, marriage and children, Ms. McCormack suggested they be more open-ended. “We did hope, courage, love, so they can be interpreted as life plays out,” she said.
Ms. McCormack said the boxes have appealed equally to her (predominantly self-purchasing) female clients as they have to lovers, husbands and parents. Prices start at 20,000 pounds, or $25,670, including an £8,000 credit for jewelry. “I’m forcing you to buy jewelry essentially,” she said, laughing.
An entirely bespoke order takes three months to complete, from consultation to delivery; a demi-bespoke version takes less time as it is almost entirely embroidered in advance, although two compartments can have initials added. “Either way, you want those things that will last. Fast fashion is not my world,” she said.
Ms. McCormack’s is not the only luxury house to express its aesthetic through jewelry boxes. A short walk from the townhouse stands the New Bond Street retailer Asprey, which offers leather jewelry boxes inspired by dressing cases for which it received a royal warrant from Queen Victoria in 1862. Linley, the British furniture maker founded by David Linley Armstrong-Jones, the Earl of Snowdon and nephew to Queen Elizabeth II, offers boxes decorated with handcrafted marquetry. And Dolce and Gabbana’s Carretto jewelry box echoes the fashion house’s Sicilian roots, its vibrant carvings inspired by traditional horse-drawn carts.
For Ms. McCormack, the process of creating the jewelry boxes has been so enjoyable that it gave her another thought: “Maybe I’ll give up the jewelry and just go into boxes.”