Bone buttons made and sold in large quantities appeared in the 13th Century. It is not clear whether any of the button manufacturers themselves became wealthy, but somebody was getting rich, because a market developed for small “caskets”—actually jewelry boxes—that were most often given as engagement gifts. Here the betrothed could keep her gems, love letters, and other precious items.
An enterprising Florentine merchant and diplomat, Baldassare Embriachi, seized the marketing opportunity. He began manufacturing ornately hexagonal or rectangular boxes decorated with bone carvings to satisfy the luxurious tastes of European royalty and Northern Italian nobility, who had a desire for ivory but not always the means to afford it. (Elephants sighed with relief–momentarily.)
Embriachi’s craftsmen carved low relief images on rectangular segments of bone, usually horse or oxen. Judging by the flatness and size of these segments, most if not all of the raw material came from the cannon bones in the animal’s limbs. (It is probably a good thing that elephants and humans do not have cannon bones.) The carved figures often depicted tales from mythology, medieval romance, or the Bible. On the boxes, the artisans surrounded the carvings with elaborate frames inlayed with wood, horn, and bone.
The workshop also produced family alter pieces, and prestigious donors commissioned a few magnificent ones for monastic foundations. The workmanship is astounding, especially considering that it was all done with hand tools.
Embriachi eventually moved his workshop to Venice and turned the enterprise over to his two sons. Production spanned nearly 60 years centered on the year 1400. Judging by the number of pieces that I have seen in museums, at Google Images, and at Pinterest, the Embriachi enterprise must have produced hundreds, if not thousands of these luxury goods.
For several reasons, products from the Embriachi workshop cannot be specifically dated or even clearly attributed to Embriachi versus one of his competitors. This conundrum for art historians and collectors stems from the fact that multiple artisans contributed to the production of any single object, making it difficult or impossible to confirm a signature style or evolution of style. Furthermore, to meet the pocketbooks of Embriachi’s clientele, the workshop produced secular objects in various qualities throughout its existence, again confounding any attempt to note a refinement of motif or detail over time.
Existing altar pieces and many caskets are displayed in fine art and decorative art museums. The caskets along with chess and backgammon boards appear from time to time in high-end art auctions. Prices range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. If the new owner has any cash left over, I guess they can stash it inside their bone box.