What is "Engine Turning" and Engine Turned Snuff Boxes?

Georgian Silver Snuff Box John Bettridge

Whether you are a long time collector or just starting off, it does not take long to realise the vast amount of snuff box designs, shapes and sizes they come in. Ranging from large and jewelled gold boxes to the minimalistic pocket boxes there is certainly a vast amount to choose from and be it for collection or viewing, the wide array of boxes can be a point of great interest and curiosity.

One may often find themselves looking at ornate pieces and wondering how silversmiths and craftsmen in the past were able to make some of these pieces.



In today's blog post, we'll take a look at "engine turned" silver snuff boxes, one of the commonly found types of silver snuff box designs that you may come across.


Engine Turned Boxes -  "Engine Turned" refers to a geometric pattern/technique in which metal is engraved  (with a machine that moves in a repetitive turning motion) in order to add depth and a three-dimensional design to a flat surface. This type of design can be commonly found in Georgian and Victorian snuff boxes in which typical designs feature bold streaked lines, fine zig-zag patterned lines and reeded patterns.

This type of design is usually found on pocket-sized snuff boxes rather than communal table snuff boxes - The design provides a minimalistic yet vivid impression and has a relatively non-reflective surface finish in comparison to high polished boxes.

The images to the right and below are some examples of pieces that have an engine turned silver exterior.

A macro shot of multiple engine turned motifs.

Joseph Willmore Silver Snuff Box

Bold reeded lines running across all the sides.

The "engine turning" machines used to create such motifs, as the name suggests, feature mechanical wheels that turn in a geometrical pattern thus creating precise motifs of lines/engraved patterns. 

Whilst in the current era engine turning still exists, many of the machines have become electrically powered and semi-automatic. The machines utilised in the Georgian/Victorian era would be hand operated and thus required significantly more manpower to create such designs and as a result a further valuable final product.

An additional feature that can be found commonly on engine turned silver pocket snuff boxes is the contrasting interior gilding. Many collectors who look to find a box for personal use or display will make sure to check the condition of not only the exterior but the interior as well. 

The gilding is a fine layer of gold plate that is applied over the silver thus giving it a gold appearance - this creates a strong contrast to the reserved exterior appearance, and unbeknownst to the others hides a stunning and vivid interior.

Georgian Silver Snuff Box Engine Turned

As evident above, upon a quick glance, whilst the exterior may appear somewhat plain to some, collectors and snuff enthusiasts can self-indulge in a moment of luxury and richness upon opening the bright gold interior. 

Whilst a fairly common design amongst pocket snuff boxes and a regular sight for snuffbox collectors, it is a classical and unquestionably interesting design that may be an ideal piece for a first timer and those who look to start collecting silver snuff boxes.

You can click on all the images above for further information about each piece and addition photographs of the silver snuff boxes. 

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