by David Isle

Beau Brummell is remembered as the man who popularized the simple yet elegant wool garments from which our modern business dress is descended. His unadorned outfits of black boots, dark wool coats, and white shirts, made it all the more dramatic and exhilarating when out from a pocket he would present one of his many intricately decorated snuff boxes.

While today's dandies may recognize snuff only as a color of suede, in the early 19th century it was the most fashionable form of tobacco, a finely ground powder taken through the nose. Brummell devised and mastered an artful choreography of opening the snuff box and lifting a sniff's worth to his nose using only one hand, which required flipping the lid open for all to see, and lifting it to his face so it might be fully admired. The performance was over in an instant but the effect, like that of the drug itself, lingered for longer.

Brummell supposedly had one snuff box for each day of the year. They were decorated with miniature portraits, inlayed arabesque, precious metals and gemstones, or all of the above. As with everything he owned, Brummell's snuff boxes were coveted. When bankruptcy forced him out of England, his collection was sold off by creditors, which must have been like a 19th century version of Michael Jordan putting his collection of game shoes on eBay.

It was the admiration of one such box that intensified a nascent feud between Brummell and his first and most powerful advocate, the Prince of Wales. According to Ian Kelly's excellent biography of Brummell, the Prince asked Brummell if he might have a box that he especially liked. The Prince proposed as restitution that Brummell go to Gray's Jewelers on Bond Street and order whatever box he liked on the royal account. Brummell suggested, in homage, that he might be allowed to commission a box with the Prince's miniature, encrusted in jewels. The Prince assented, and Brummell's box was his.

The difficulties began when Brummell discovered later that the Prince had canceled his order at Gray's. Not only that, he refused to return Brummell's original box bought with the promise of the now-canceled one. Brummell would eventually lose his friendship with the Prince, his sanity, and all his material possessions before finally losing his life. But the loss of his precious snuff boxes might have hurt more than any other.