Japanese puzzle boxes and a LOT more
A puzzle box is a box that can only be opened by solving a puzzle. Many puzzle boxes may look simplistic on the outside. That is their attraction. But for many of them you’ll need to open your mind to a realm of possibilities to find the moves or the mechanism that can open the box.
We’ve got puzzle boxes with many levels of difficulty from a single simple move (simple once you’ve found it that is!) to the most difficult sequential discovery puzzle boxes that require many moves, including the use of tools, to open.
Most well known is the Japanese Secret box. Called himitsu-bako, they are intriguing and with their mosaic style of decorative woodwork they have been popular souvenirs for the tourists visiting the Hakone region of Japan for over 200 years.
Less famous, at least outside of some dedicated puzzle collectors, are those puzzle boxes developed in the early 1900’s in the UK and Europe.
Also made as souvenirs for tourists in Sorrento and Naples in Italy were beautifully decorated wooden puzzle boxes in the style of a stack of books. Usually with a hidden key the puzzler had to find the secret panels that might hide the keyhole. Usually used as jewellery boxes. They were first made in the 1860’s and continued to be made right up until the early 1960’s.
In 1893 Professor Hoffman wrote a book which illustrated and described hundreds of mechanical puzzles. Included in that book was a puzzle called the Psycho Match-Box. It was made and sold by A.W.Gamage of London Limited in what they called their Magical Department and the challenge was to see if you could open it and get to the matches and the striker.
Its generally accepted that many of these secret opening boxes had their origins, or the idea may have come from, furniture designs that date even earlier than these first puzzles.
Fine furniture like the mechanical desk produced by Alfred Emmanuel Louis Beurdeley, a cabinetmaker from Paris, in the late 1880’s built on an already strong tradition started more than 100 years before by Jean-Francois Oeben. The table appears to have a single center drawer but really has 3 hidden drawers disguised could definitely be considered as a puzzle box.
Another example of functional furniture that had hidden compartments used to securely store items were the Military Campaign boxes of the 1800s. Out in the field high ranking officers could hide valuables in secret drawers that needed knowledge of the secret mechanisms to open them, all under the disguise of a normal writing slope.
In India the Damchiya is a traditional dowry or blanket box. But more commonly, and possibly more accurately, these chests got the name Smugglers Chest because they contain hidden compartments that can only be opened by means of concealed mechanisms. If Government Tax Officials, Police or anyone you wished to deceive, opened the chest they would find only blankets and clothing stored in the largest and most obvious compartment. Only if the contents were taken out and the chest given very close scrutiny would they be able to detect other compartments for secreting valuables or contraband. Also a very useful ploy in communal living for keeping your special belongings to yourself.
So you can see there are many inspirations in history for modern puzzle box makers to draw from.
The main reason for the wave of interest in puzzle boxes since the 1980’s is probably down to three men. Akio Kamei in Japan, Trevor Wood in England, and Frank Chambers in Ireland.
Akio Kamei is an undisputed master of exquisite fine woodworking, and making puzzles with clever new ways of locking and unlocking them. He’s known for his amazing themed designs so that the puzzle box represents a theme that might lead you to the solution if you think about it hard enough. Since he started his career in 1972 he’s built up a worldwide following where people eagerly await each new design and they sell out very fast.
Trevor Wood was never a full time puzzlemaker. He made puzzles as a part-time hobby from 1986 but no longer does so. But his name has become synonymous with amazing puzzle boxes and other puzzles which because of the limited supply demand prices at auction of many hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Some of the mechanisms he designed into opening his puzzle boxes truly meant you needed to understand some principles of physics to open them!
Sadly Frank Chambers passed away in 2007. His take on puzzle box design was quite different to others. His medium was not wood but rather stone or brass. The puzzle boxes he made were small, elegant, with mechanisms that have confounded many a very experienced puzzler. Some people have had his designs in their collection for years and never been able to open them!
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