How a naval architect turned into a musical box master

November 28, 2015 08:03
Hiromu Ohmori is a self-taught master of musical boxes. He is now a technical advisor at the Kawaguchiko Music Forest Museum in Japan. Photo: HKEJ

Collecting and restoring antique musical boxes has been a long-standing passion for Hiromu Ohmori (大森裕武).

The fascination with the devices, some of which look like small jewelry chests, began when the Japanese national visited a museum during a trip to the US in 1978. 

In the museum, Ohmori found himself transfixed as he saw an array of old musical boxes from various parts of the world.

He says he can still recall a German-made Polyphon disc-playing musical box that measured 15 inches in diameter.

Developing a deep interest in the gadgets, Ohmori began collecting them and eventually took up restoration work as a career.

He gave up his job as a naval architect and devoted himself full-time to his passion. As of now, he has been at that work for about 20 years.

Ohmori says shipbuilding and craftsmanship of musical boxes involve some common elements, given that they are both feats of engineering.

"Musical boxes can produce beautiful music through a sophisticated mechanical system, while vessels are able stay afloat and propel due to supreme design and mechanics."

As Ohmori got fired up about antique musical boxes, he started buying faulty ones, studying them and carrying out repairs. He resells some boxes and uses the money to buy many more.

There weren't any courses or reference books that he could utilize as he began restoration of the antique musical boxes. Ohmori did everything on his own, learning through trial and error.

Meanwhile, he seized whatever opportunities he had during his foreign trips to meet up with experts in the field.

After 15 years of practice, Ohmori began getting recognition for his work. Collectors would come in person to ask for his help for restoring their precious boxes.

This prompted him, at the age of 45, to fully devote his time to antique musical boxes restoration. 

Ohmori is now 66 years old.

The type of boxes the master has been most familiar with are the ones using the metal disk system. He says the models that come with a mechanism for automatically changing the metal disks are the most difficult.

"The more the movable parts a musical box contains, the harder it takes to restore," he says.

In the collectors' world, 1910 was the watershed for antique musical boxes, as phonographs, jukeboxes and many other machines emerged in the market.

"The cost will be enormous to manufacture one large-scaled box nowadays. Meanwhile, it is relatively cheaper to restoring the old boxes," says Ohmori.

"It takes a lot of hard work, as each of the boxes is almost one of a kind. You have no model parts to replicate. If I am lucky, I can make the part right in my first trial. If not, it could take up to four or five trials."

Ohmori says he is grateful to his family for supporting him in his labor of love.

Apart from his interest, he says he is also motivated by the desire to help preserve heritage and history.

In the 1980s, which represented a golden era for musical box collection in Japan, Ohmori heard a member of the Music Box Society International question whether the Japanese were capable of maintaining the boxes, or whether they were just collecting them as a fad. 

"We must preserve and maintain the boxes in the best condition... to safeguard the fame of our nation," he says.

Ohmori says he hopes Hong Kong people will come and visit the Kawaguchiko Music Forest Museum in Japan so that they can appreciate the beauty of the magnificent boxes further, after an exhibition currently underway in Hong Kong.

An exhibition of antique music boxes from the Japanese museum, which is located near Lake Kawaguchi in Fujikawaguchiko, is now showcasing at Landmark North complex in Sheung Shui. 

The exhibition, which opened on Nov. 14, will run until Dec. 28.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 26.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Ohmori has repaired numerous antique musical boxes. The work requires sophisticated skills and dedicated craftsmanship in wood and metals. Photo: HKEJ
Ohmori seen with the owner of Mechanical Music Museum in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. Photo: HKEJ
Picture on the left shows a vintage Japanese music box. On the right is a French-made 'box' where you find the bird singing with movements. Photos: HKEJ
On the left is a 19th-century hand cranking children’s music box from Switzerland. On the right is a Polyphon disc music box made in early 20th century. Photos: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal