Love at First Note
We all have those casual friends or acquaintances that we enjoy bumping into and catching up with at sales and fairs, etc. but after a longer than usual hiatus, one such chap had occasion to ring quite out of the blue and pick my brains over something or other. After a little chitchat, he enquired was I still into musical boxes? Having a sharp eye himself, he asked me to remind him exactly what I was looking for. “ Primarily a plain looking case, usually devoid of inlay, three exposed controls on the left – if you see one, regardless of condition, take a quick picture and let me know” I told him.
The inevitable pause, whereby he asked typically what do I usually pay. Explaining that each box is unique I could only gauge any offer on seeing the actual piece, but the price would increase with a metal tune sheet, dramatically so with a fat cylinder and should it have a graph type engraved cylinder surface, then whatever the condition – He was on to something’ I emphasised.
Around a week later, the phone rang, “Hey up Mark! I think I’ve found one of those boxes you were looking for”
“Go on” Came my reply.
“Well, it’s a plain case, except for a little cross banding, walnut I think . . . Three exposed control levers, a fat cylinder and a tiny little brass tune sheet, engraved in copperplate script with the names of four overtures! Any interest?”
As this fellow has a good sense of humour, perhaps I could be forgiven for thinking this was a wind up (groan) With mind racing, I asked if there was anything else? He confirmed there was a name on the comb, Robert Nicols or something, couldn’t be sure because it was so dirty.
I enquired where it had surfaced, and apparently a well-known clock dealer had taken it in part exchange on something or other forty years prior. Despite trusting this chap implicitly, I was understandably cautious, Instead of snatching his hand off at the giveaway price I was quoted, I indicated my interest, and let him know I would make a decision ASAP.
A quick check on the music box register, unlisted, and after several phone calls, I satisfied myself of it’s clear title, returning the call 48hrs later to let him know I would take it.“There’s a problem Mark, the owner has cleaned the comb a little, done some research on the maker, Reymond Nicole and found one went for quite a sum at auction, so you will have to be in the bidding if you want it”
With sunken heart, resigned to the fact that it was just another of those goose chases, I gave it a final pitch. Took a gamble and offered to pay the price the previous example made, sight unseen. Ten minutes passed “You are on, when do want to collect it?”
“Tomorrow” came my instant reply before anything else could go wrong.
On inspection, a once magnificent box looking very dishevelled and sorry for its self sat before me. The mechanism was olive green and gunged up, a light surface rust on parts of the comb, and evidence of resonator sulphation with the giveaway white powder between the base teeth as is the norm with every unrestored Reymond – Nicole that has surfaced to date.
The tune sheet, small, 25 mm x 65 mm and beautifully engraved, listing the four pieces.
Ouverture de la Muette
Ouverture de la Fiancee
Ouverture de la Fra Diavalo
Duo de Robert le Diable
The cylinder pins had survived unblemished, the comb alas was a different story, it had 22 missing tips, due to the effort lifting the weight of so many base teeth, stuck fast with sulphation. The case was relatively plain, giving a mere hint of something special lying within, by displaying an interesting (presumed) walnut veneer panel to the lid, with a 30mm deep Rosewood cross banding, as described.
The deal was done, and the onerous challenge of restoration then reared its head. I took it to one of the best in the business and after looking it over for a good while, he declared he would do his best, but only if I could get the comb re leaded. That’s when the problem started; we are talking 200 teeth on a 26 cm comb. Intricate work on a Polyphon, but that could be considered heavy engineering compared to this. Who could do this work? Dead end after dead end!
Eventually, a light bulb moment! I asked a friend, a welder by trade, if he would be prepared to do it ‘WHAT!’ . . . I hear you exclaim in disbelief. But this chap is a gifted artisan craftsman, who built his own electronically controlled precision machine for automatically welding titanium specifically for racing motorcycle exhausts. He tried his hand on a scrap 10 air comb, “No problem Mark’ until of course he saw THE COMB . . . “Mmmmmm’ will have to think about that”
In the meantime a duplex 45cm Polyphon turned up that needed a re lead, the combs were sent along and I passed them on for practice, of course due to other demands on his time, many months passed but they were done to a high standard. Still caution was advised against letting him loose on such a fine comb, but I had every confidence in my man, so urging him to get on with it, a year soon passed, and after a little more pushing, it was job on.
The problem with soldering new resonators to such a fine comb was heat dissipation, so the teeth either side don’t lose their own resonators. A jig was built to hold the inverted comb at neck level, a large looking glass was attached and it was decided to use a traditional iron heated in the fire rather than fine flame or electric. I was amazed when a box full of brand new, old stock, copper tipped soldering irons were pulled out of the magic cupboard, one was carefully selected and the tip ground and altered to form an anvil type ridge, 2mm high x.8mm wide, allowing for direct contact with the prior tinned tooth face.
The resonators, all pre made and numbered were applied alternately, the second phase involved using the resonators thus applied as shoulders to support the remaining leads still needing to be affixed. Elongated Titanium shims were then used not only to keep the leads apart, but prevent the solder from bridging. These shims protruded upwards by around 100mm to quickly absorb and dissipate heat. After all the R&D to perfect his technique, the whole operation took 4 hours.
Once back with the restorer, not only did the 22 tips need replacing, but all the dampers also (one must remember that the dampers on early boxes are fixed with a flush fit taper pin, with each needing to be skilfully drilled out . . . A most time consuming and laborious job!).
The governor required a rebuild, and the comb tips were carefully honed and the comb re tuned. It was time to re assemble and set up. During conversation with the restorer, I expressed my hope that it would make a good box. “Put it this way, have you ever heard a bad one?” Was his sobering response. Point taken, but breath was still baited
The call soon came that my box was ready, forty hours later, I had driven the 250 miles to collect, with 5 years of hard work, and dedication behind us: The acid test: What would it sound like? Would I like it? Would it all be worth it? Mind was racing, the pulse had quickened.
As I moved forward to turn it on, throat dry, I was quietly told the arrangements were very, very good. With finger on the start lever I gulped, was this really happening.
But why, why could anyone get so excited over a music box?
The name stamp on this example was made after maker Henri Reymond married the daughter of the great musical box master himself, Francois Nicole. On the odd piece known to survive, his work was usually signed Reymond. All boxes with excellent build quality, exceptional arrangements, and after the marriage, despite now working in the same building as both his father in law and Francois Lecoultre, Henri Reymond remained his own man. There are distinctive differences in both the style of comb construction, expression, musical tone, and soul. Quite commendably he had his own ideas and stuck fast.
Two of the musical pieces on this box, I have heard on at least two Francois Nicole boxes, these arrangements are totally different, no better, no worse, just here we have Henri’s own interpretation. Without doubt, if you are lucky enough to acquire a genuine Francois Nicole, (Not to be confused with F.Nicole) you really have found the holy grail of mechanical music. The art is in the musical quality and the tonal colours. Aptly described by the late Menno Jonkers as The Michelangelo of music boxes . . . Who could argue?
Meanwhile, find a Reymond and you have the chalice that sits beside the grail. Here, one or two may argue, but pretty much on par with a Francois, just a differing style of delivery. However father in law holds number one position, because after all, he did invent the steel damper and went on to pioneer the one piece comb!
Back to the box. The lever shifted, the box felt eerily still, the usual slight vibration and barely audible hum felt as the governor starts was absent. With a clear and pure tone, this special box started to play. To avoid disappointment I had conditioned my mind to be sceptical, but after playing all four pieces, I was smitten, love on a first note!
The gentleman who restored it, had done more than just repair it. True to form, not only did he breathe the very life and back into it with his magical fingers and critical ear, he was able to enticed out the immortal soul of Henri Reymond.
Big thanks to Alan Godier, Russ Parker, Geoff Maddon and his daughter Emily for their parts in making this happen. Each have done themselves, the box and myself proud.