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And They Brought Forth Gifts
by Bob Brooke


On a clear starry night in ancient Judea, three men—Patisar, Caspar, and Melchior— riding camels paused to look at the brightest star in the heavens. According to the Gospel of Matthew, they had traveled from afar following this star to the town of Bethlehem in order to pay homage to the infant Jesus. As was the tradition in those days, they came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, three very valuable commodities. And so Christian tradition and thousands of images bear witness.

All three gifts were ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Gold as a valuable, frankincense as a perfume, and myrrh as an anointing oil. But these gifts also had a spiritual meaning—gold as a symbol of kingship on Earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh as a symbol of death. But what is less known about were the containers—called caskets—in which the men transported their gifts.

Over the centuries, caskets—to many people the elaborate boxes in which the dead are placed to be buried—have taken a variety of forms, from modest little boxes covered in leather and lined with satin to large jewel cabinets made for Marie Antoinette.

The actual meaning of the word “casket” is a small ornamental box or chest for holding jewels, letters, or other valued objects. It comes from the Old French word cassette, a diminutive form of case.

Artisans crafted caskets of precious materials, such as gold, silver, and ivory. In ancient East Asia, they often made them of porcelain or wood covered in silk.

Jewelry boxes were in common use as early as 5000 BCE in Ancient Egypt since the majority of Egyptians, male and female, wore jewelry. The Egyptians preferred material was gold, often encrusted with precious gems and as such, a secure, yet often well decorated box or casket was required to keep such items safe. Generally, a casket was smaller than a chest and could be placed on top of a table. In recent times they are mostly receptacles for trinkets and jewels, but in earlier periods, when other types of container were rarer, and the amount of documents held by the typical person far fewer, they were used for keeping important documents and many other purposes. Caskets are often made in precious materials, such as gold, silver or ivory.

The 4th century Brescia Casket, 8th century Franks Casket and 10th-11th century Veroli Casket are all in elaborately carved ivory, a popular material for luxury boxes until recent times.

Originally, jewelry boxes were more similar to treasure chests, hence the term “jewelry casket” became interchangeable with “jewelry box.” The term jewelry casket is usually used when referring to a larger box, which would be considered slightly smaller than a chest, and usually raised on feet, rather than the base being flat to the surface which it rests on.

In Rome, jewelry was a status symbol, with only certain ranks permitted to wear rings for example. Fine brooches were used to secure items of clothing, and again, jewelry boxes were required for storage purpose.

Until the Victorian era, owning jewelry was a rare luxury, and to have enough jewelry to need storage for it was a privilege bestowed upon only a few members of royalty and high society.

Jewelry boxes, jewelry caskets and trinket boxes have all varied widely in their appearance over history. Ornate styles with elaborate detail were initially common, indicating outwardly the value of the items inside.

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