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How does a puzzle box work?

Never use force to move a puzzle box piece. If it's supposed to move, it will move easily.
Never use force to move a puzzle box piece. If it's supposed to move, it will move easily.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Puzzle boxes are decorative wooden boxes that can only be opened through a series of often-complicated moves, including sliding, unlocking, lifting and pressing. Some boxes only require one or two such moves to open, while the most complicated have more than 100. Many times a key is hidden within the box and used at a certain point in the process to unlock another section or for the final opening.

If you're able to open a puzzle box, it often contains a small gift or good luck charm in a secret compartment, which is usually lined with velvet. It's actually the secret compartment that you're seeking; merely opening the box isn't the only goal.

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While puzzle boxes are often square or rectangular in shape, some styles are fashioned into items such as a tooth, pineapple, heart or house. Puzzle box banks, which come with a money slot, are also somewhat common. If you have a puzzle box bank, you can usually deposit your coins easily but can only withdraw them if you know how to open it. In one Japanese version, you have to deposit a certain number of coins before the bank will open, even if you know the necessary set of moves [source: Puzzle Box World].

Typically, new puzzle boxes come with a difficulty rating -- for example, beginner, intermediate and advanced -- or tell you how many steps it takes to open them. Most boxes also include instructions, but some retailers let you opt out of receiving them and will email the opening sequence to you later, if necessary [source: Net Shop UK].

Puzzle boxes originated in Japan but are made all over the world today, especially in Costa Rica, Poland, Turkey, Vietnam, and, of course, Japan. American puzzle boxes are characterized by their various locking mechanisms, which can be made using pins, magnets, gravity and inertia. Unfortunately, there aren't many traditional puzzle box artisans anymore. On a positive note, people are beginning to collect puzzle boxes, and a new generation of talented craftsmen is emerging [source: Japanese Puzzle Boxes].

On the next page, learn about how puzzle boxes were first created.

The Japanese are credited with creating the first puzzle boxes in the early- to mid-19th century in Japan's Hakone region, just south of Tokyo. Dubbed Himitsu-Bako, or personal secret box, they were marketed to people traveling by carriage as a way to hide their valuables from highway robbers. Robbers typically overlooked the boxes, which appeared to be merely ornamental objects [source: Serious Puzzles].

Ornamental, indeed. Hakone's puzzle box makers crafted beautifully decorated boxes using a popular regional woodcraft marquetry technique that developed due to the area's wide variety of trees, such as the spindle tree, wax tree, cherry tree and Katsura-jindai tree [source: Serious Puzzles]. The wood from these trees has differing textures and an array of colors, from black and gray to yellow and white, which allowed local artisans to create intricately designed wooden pieces, such as bowls, trays and toys [source: Frik-n-Frak].

There are two decorative styles for boxes: Yosegi-Zaiku and Zougan. Yosegi-Zaiku is a mosaic style, where a skilled craftsman cuts different colored woods into various shapes, then glues them together to form geometrically patterned wood blocks. Thin layers of these blocks are shaved off, then glued to the puzzle box's exterior. The Zougan technique involves first chiseling out a particular shape into a puzzle box's surface, then creating elaborate scenes inside it using thin pieces of wood inlay. Some of the more popular Zougan scenes are mountain lakes, Mount Fuji and flying geese [source: Serious Puzzles].

Japan's early boxes were fairly large and required anywhere from about 50 to nearly 70 steps to open. They were also pricey and became sought after by Japan's wealthy citizens. Over time, the number of artisans skilled in the Yosegi-Zaiku and Zougan techniques declined. In an effort to attract more buyers, modern Himitsu-Bako are smaller, cheaper and less complicated, and that effort is paying off; they're one of the top souvenirs for visitors to the Hakone area. And despite the declining number of skilled puzzle box makers, Hakone boxes are still considered the most beautiful in the world [source: Frik-n-Frak].

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Sources

  • Frik-n-Frak. "Puzzle Box History." (July 18, 2011) http://www.frik-n-frak.com/Puzzle-Box-History_ep_85-1.html
  • Gatewood, Randal. "The Art of Making Puzzle Boxes." Quagmire Puzzle Boxes. (July 18, 2011) http://www.quagmirepuzzleboxes.com/TheCraft.htm
  • Net Shop UK. "Puzzle Boxes." (July 19, 2011) http://www.netshopuk.net/shop/puzzle/
  • Pandora's Puzzle Boxes. (July 18, 2011) http://www.pandoraspuzzleboxes.com/index.htm
  • Puzzle Box World. "Japanese Puzzle Boxes." (July 19, 2011) http://www.puzzleboxworld.com/japanese-puzzle-boxes.htm
  • Puzzle Box World. "Karakuri Money Bank Japanese Puzzle Box (Self Assembly Kit)." (July 19, 2011) http://www.puzzleboxworld.com/karakuri-money-bank-japanese-puzzle-box-self-assembly-kit.htm
  • Quagmire Puzzle Boxes. "Puzzle Box ~ Q&A ~ Information." (July 18, 2011) http://www.quagmirepuzzleboxes.com/Information.htm
  • Serious Puzzles. "American Puzzle Boxes." (July 18, 2011) http://www.seriouspuzzles.com/spuzboxesam.asp
  • Serious Puzzles. "Japanese Puzzle Boxes." (July 18, 2011) http://www.seriouspuzzles.com/spuzboxesjp.asp
  • Serious Puzzles. "Polish Puzzle Boxes." (July 18, 2011) http://www.seriouspuzzles.com/spuzboxespo.asp
  • Serious Puzzles. "Puzzle Boxes." (July 18, 2011) http://www.seriouspuzzles.com/spu.asp
  • Slocum, Jerry. "Japanese Puzzle Boxes." Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine. 2003. (July 18, 2011) http://www.go-star.com/antiquing/puzzleboxes.htm
  • Unique Box Shop. "Polish Style Secret Boxes." (July 18, 2011) http://www.uniqueboxshop.com/polsecbox1.html

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