The charming tradition of giving a bonbonniere as a gift to wedding guests has spread from the Meditterranean to the world. It is a stylish option that appeals to brides from any culture, although these ornamental boxes must fight for their future in the crowded market of wedding favours.
Today wherever you attend a chic wedding, you are likely to come away with a bonbonniere. Like wine and pasta, these ornamental sweet boxes are a Mediterranen tradition that was too good to stay at home. They are now also to be found in Canada or Japan, giving fashionable brides a taste of the warm culture and festive customs of Southern Europe - and offering glassmakers the chance to enter a new market.
For generations no self-respecting Italian or Greek wedding has taken place without bonbonnieres to hold sugar-coated almonds known (confusingly for English-speakers) as "confetti". These carry several symbolic meanings. They generally come in groups of five - representing fertility, happiness, health, long life and wealth - and for the more literary they recall Demophon's deserted spouse, Phylis, who turned into an almond tree which blossomed on his return. And they are also a reminder that marriage - just like a sugared almond - combines the sweet with the bitter.
Yet, despite the sophisticated symbolism, this is actually a relatively recent role for precious sweet boxes. Back in the Renaissance, for example, they were exchanged by kings and nobles across Europe simply to bring luck and convey good wishes. They were most essential at the celebration of an engagement, where lovers would drink from a "loving cup" (a ceramic plate in which a female face or a pregnant rabbit was painted along with the name of the girl) while their families swapped sweet boxes.
In England, the bonbonniere's ancestor was a "sweetmeat box". Made of gold-plated silver, or gold with crystal or jewels, they were exchanged by royalty and nobles in the sixteenth century. At the New Year in 1574, Queen Elizabeth I received several- as gifts to wish goodwill for the next twelve months. At the time sugar was so precious, there was nothing inappropriate about such jewelled receptacles for sweets. Across the Channel at the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, similar elaborate and costly boxes.were popular gifts among the glittering courtiers. bonbonnieres of mother-ofpearl, painted ivory, mosaic and gold were a perfect way to show affection and demonstrate taste.
The tradition was so suited to French culture that it survived the Revolution; in the early nineteenth century, Napoleon continued to reward his favourites with sweet boxes. Unfortunately, few examples of such generosity survive - it was common for great men to give boxes encrusted with jewels in the expectation that the recipient would take them off and convert them into cash.
It was in the eighteenth century that these ornamental boxes were given the name bonbonniere (derived from "bon bon", the French for sweet). This was also the moment that their contents once almost as exclusive as their decorations - became more accessible. Sugar was still a rare and precious commodity, but with the development of international trade it became ever more affordable. And one consequence was that bonbonnieres entered their golden age and reached a much wider market.
This was also the moment when bonbonniere developed their modern role. While they had previously brought good luck whenever it was necessary, they now became associated with marriage. Initially, it is not entirely clear whether they were given by or to the bride and groom. Over the course of the nineteenth century, they became what they are today - a gift for, not from, the guests. bonbonniere's transition to the middle classes brought new materials and new styles. Porcelain was popular in the mid-eighteenth century, especially with rococo designs. The end of the century then saw neo-classical restraint dominate. This was in turn replaced by eclecticism in the nineteenth century, when historical models had especial success, although outstanding originality was never entirely banished. This is also the period when the goldsmith Carl Faberge's fashioned the exquisite egg-shaped containers for the family of the Russian Tsar. Thai remains the greatest bonbonniere of all. In the twentieth century bonbonnieres developed two parallel traditions. Classic forms inspired by previous centuries now coexisted with contemporary designs following trends like art deco and liberty. Among the most innovative examples were boxes in maiolica with motherof-pearl effects by the Hungarian manufacturer Zsolnay. The Italian Galileo Chini designer also introduced striking modemist designs made in Florence from gres.
In Italy, where bomboniera established themselves most strongly, the twenties saw ceramic take on a leading role, with artistic inspiration coming from art deco and futurism. In the thirties glass then came to the fore with the Muranese glassmakers Venini, Seguso, Barover and Toso. But neither ceramic or glass entirely supplanted other materials - silver, for example, was the material chosen at the end of nineteenth century by Umberto I of Savoy. He selected a monogrammed silver box for the marriage of his son, Vittorio Emanuele III, with Princess Elena of Montenegro.
Today the range of materials is vast. Pewter, onyx, brass, alabaster, crystal, wood, lace have all enjoyed success. The array of styles is just as broad.
In the seventies, for example, there was a market for reworking in "Capodimonte" style porcelain of eighteenth-century styles from north Italy and Naples. Yet at the same time modern geometric fonns emerged from Tuscan and Venetian glassworks. Both styles enjoyed great success among prospective brides.
As the practice of giving bonbonniere spreads, we will undoubtedly see a further diversification of design as it reflects the tastes of new markets. In Europe, while Spain and Greece remain key market, the United Kingdom is becoming increasingly important and Belgium is also a major consumer. And influenced in part by Italian, Iranian and Hispanic immigrants, the United States is developing a growing appetite for bonbonnieres, popular not just at wedding but also at Christmas.
But for bonbonnieres a glittering future is by no means guaranteed. Individuality, not tradition, is the key to modem weddings and a cute detail like five almonds has little appeal to the modern bride. Kate Smallwood, fashion stylist of "You and Your Wedding" magazine, told me that modern brides are determined to give their big day a personal touch. For this reason, she says, guests are as likely to get five chocolates or five jelly babies as five almonds.
For British brides there is a further obstacle to ornate glass or crystal boxes. Modern couples pay for their own weddings, so they often cannot afford to give their guests very costly gifts. A survey by "You and Your Wedding" found that the average reader (mainly middle or upper class) spends only about Euro 200 on wedding favours. Kate Smallwood puts the upper limit of about 5 or 8 Euro per person. The crucial consideration for her is that a favour is something everyone will appreciate. As it will accompany place settings, it is also desirable that it looks good on a table. In glass and crystal, she was especially keen on votive candleholders and small vases containing a single flower.
London's leading wedding store, Confetti, also reports that brides are looking for highly individual, creative wedding favours. In terms of glass, personalised glassware is just one option - along with a whole range of more unconventional ideas such as picture frames, engraved key rings, lottery tickets, corkscrews, tulip bulbs and sun-cream (for an open air wedding). And there are also plenty of alternative traditional favours. Malaysian couples give decorated eggs and Russian and Japanese brides give picture frames or vases. In Greece it was not unusual for glass charms in the shape of an eye to be given as protection from bad luck.
So both bonbonnieres as a design and glass as a material face heavy competition. The message for glassmakers is perhaps to diversify their offer. American companies like Favors Direct and Keepsake Favors have found a receptive market for glass wedding favours including miniature slippers, small vases, personalised champagne glasses, bottle stoppers, votive candle holders and glass bells retailing at between $4 and $8. And among their top sellers there is also a modern bonbonniere, although it is actually described as a "heart crystal covered candy dish".
In recent years one of the most popular and striking options for wedding favours is crystal,and especially the crystal of Swarovski. The famous Austrian manufacturer has created several items that are dedicated to marriage. For wedding favours Swarovski presents its HeartTack Pin and Heart Key Ring - small glittering crystal hearts that will be valued by wedding guests and also enhance the table of a wedding celebration, attached perhaps to the traditional gift of sugared almonds. There are several other charming reminders of the event to be found in the company's giftware section - what could be more appropriate that crystal bells or bouquets, or even a crystal champagne wine? The guests themselves, looking for something more substantial to give the happy couple, might be drawn to the Helios Tableclock or the Four Leaf Clover.