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A cloisonné matchbox holder is a small rectangular metalwork box, usually copper, typically 1.5"w x 2.25"h x .75"d, with front and back decorated in cloisonné enamel. The top is open to allow insertion of a wooden matchbox, and the bottom and sides have rectangular or rounded openings for pushing the matchbox open and striking a match. Most were made in China. Online sellers often say they date from the 1920s, but I cannot date them with certainty: almost all are completely unmarked and I have found no authoritative source of information about them.


The Wikipedia cloisonné page gives the history of cloisonné. The box at left, made by Ibana Cloisonné Ltd. / Kyoto, illustrates the labor-intensive process step by step; click here for a better view. Every piece is a unique handmade miniature work of art. Pieces fall into categories by background color or theme. The back is usually similar to the front, but some pieces are hybrids with front and back very different. Most are brightly colored with a floral theme but some are monochromatic. Other variations: textured surface, footed, jade insert, smaller size. Craftsmanship varies from crude (large cloisons) to extremely fine (tiny cloisons).

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Matchbox holders are sometimes part of a smoking set consisting of a matched ashtray (small dish), matchbox holder, and cigarette box (rectangular or cylindrical). We try to restrict our collecting to matchbox holders, but we have some sets too. We try to buy only undamaged pieces, but we have some that are chipped. Time takes its toll in any case, pitting often appears in the enameled surface. In rare instances, old matchboxes have survived in a matchbox holder; they have their own matchbox page.

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We have collected cloisonné matchbox holders since 1979. Way back then, finding a nice one in a cluttered antique shop was an event. Now we search on eBay, less fun but far more productive. We display them on the plate rail in the dining room of our Edwardian house. We only buy a few a year, but over almost 40 years we've acquired over 300.

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