Since antiquity, gemstones (also known as hard or semiprecious stones) have been cut and polished for use in jewelry, in the creation of vases and cups, and in the decoration of palaces. Rediscovered and developed in sixteenth-century Florence, pietra dura (hard stone) objects were collected and sometimes used as political propaganda among the Medici. A sign of wealth, taste, and power, they were also offered as diplomatic gifts or acquired by foreign sovereigns. In the following centuries, they not only aroused admiration at major European courts but also prompted artists to work with gemstones. In eighteenth-century Saxony (part of Germany), the technique was revived again by Johann Christian Neuber (1736–1808), one of Dresden's most famous goldsmiths.
Neuber specialized in creating small gold boxes decorated with local stone, such as agate, jasper, and carnelian, fashioning enchanting landscapes, elaborate floral designs, and complex geometric patterns with tiny pieces of cut and polished stones set in gold-framed cells, a technique known as Zellenmosaik (cell mosaic). Responding to the increasing interest of the European elite in the natural sciences, Neuber created the Steinkabinettabatiere (stone cabinet snuffbox), made of dozens of samples of local gemstones, each numbered on its gold rim and described in an accompanying booklet. Often incorporating Meissen porcelain plaques, cameos, and miniatures, these unique objects reflect the Saxon court's interest in both luxury items and the natural sciences.
The Frick Collection presented the first comprehensive introduction to Neuber's oeuvre, including important diplomatic gifts and approximately thirty-five snuffboxes, bonbonnières (candy boxes), and fashionable accessories. These objects were appreciated not only at the Saxon court but also throughout Europe. Offered as refined gifts, they were also acquired to attest to the wealth and good taste of their owners. Snuffboxes were especially fashionable: more than containers for tobacco powder, they were elegant accessories of a highly sophisticated society. Carried in hand or taken from a pocket, the delicate box would immediately arouse admiration.
The exhibition was co-organized by the Grünes Gewölbe of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Galerie J. Kugel, Paris, and The Frick Collection. Support for the presentation in New York was generously provided by Walter and Vera Eberstadt, Aso O. Tavitian, Margot and Jerry Bogert, and an anonymous donor.