Born in Neuwunsdorf in 1736, Johann Christian Neuber (1736-1808), mineralogist and goldsmith, was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to Johann Friedrich Trechaon, a Dresden goldsmith originally from Stockholm, Sweden. Neuber became a master of the goldsmith's guild in Dresden in July 1762 and in 1769 became director of the Green Vaults. By 1775 he had been appointed Hofjuwelier to the court of Friedrich Augustus III. Neuber is credited with the development of the technique Zellen mosaik lapidary, in which hardstone panels are suspended en cage, so that they are held in place within a fine geometric cagework of gold, a technique which is similar to creating cloisonné enamel, a style of enamel decoration in which the enamel is applied and fired within raised soldered wires on a usually metal ground.
In an advertisement in the Journal der Moden of April 1786, Neuber offers 'oval and circular gold boxes for gentleman and ladies, as stone cabinets, mounted in gold and lined with gold, of all Saxon country-stones, such as carnelians, chalcedonies, amethysts, jaspers, agates and petrified wood, numbered, together with an inventory of names, and where they can be found; a box for gentleman (Manndose) costs 150-300 Reichsthaler, a box for ladies (Damesdose) 90-150 Reichsthaler', W. Holzhausen, Johann Christian Neuber, ein schsischer Meister des 18. Jahrhunderts, Dresden, 1935, p. 12.
The present box forms part of a small group of Neuber's snuff-boxes in which the beauty and, in this case, the rarity of the stone is given greater emphasis than the gold-work. Lapis-lazuli, which had to be imported from Afghanistan, was one of the only hardstones that Neuber used that was not found in Saxony. It's unique, intense colour and composition could not be reproduced by any other stone and it was often used by Neuber to complement the dark blue ground of the Roman micromosaics plaques of the period that he incorporated onto the covers of a number of his boxes. There are two boxes in the Gilbert Collection, both illustrated in C. Truman, The Gilbert Collection of Gold Boxes, Los Angeles, 1991, pp. 229-231, no. 78 and pp. 240-241, no. 82, that use lapis-lazuli in a comparable manner to the present box. The first has a very similar construction, having oval medallions of lapis-lazuli mounted in the cover and base with oval discs on the sides. The box, the cover of which has been later set with a portrait miniature of Charlotte Agläe, Mademoiselle de Valois, is also, like the present box, decorated with white hardstone forget-me-nots as opposed to the more usual turquoise. The second, a bonbonnière set with a micromosaic panel of a hound seated on the grass, with a deep blue background, has similar lapis-lazuli discs around the sides of the base. Another snuff-box, illustrated in A. Kugel, Gold, Jasper and Carnelian Johann Christian Neuber at the Saxon Court, London, 2012, cat. no. 138, ill. p. 174 and 359, and with a comparable design is set with medallions of petrified wood from Chemnitz, a city located near the border of Germany and the Czech Republic. One of the city's most important landmarks is the Petrified Forest. From 1737, when this ancient landmark was first discovered, members of the Saxon Court in Dresden harvested the petrified wood and had it transformed into precious objects such as snuff-boxes and jewellery. This box, now in a Private Collection in New York, and the present example with their beautifully coloured hardstone medallions set within intricate gold and hardstone borders, highlight the extraordinary skill and imagination that Neuber possessed and which made his objects so sought after at the Saxon Court and beyond.