The Memory Box: An exquisite keepsake made from 100 pieces of timber per square inch

These beautiful pieces are made bespoke for each client. Photograph by Richard Cannon.


When Nigel Heldreich’s great-great-great grandfather was captured during the Napoleonic wars, he was taken to the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne where he found employment as a natural-varnish maker. ‘At the end of the war, he had the opportunity to go home to take up the reins of his considerable estate, but instead he chose to stay and marry a local innkeeper’s daughter,’ explains Nigel.

‘Almost overnight, he went from being incredibly wealthy to being incredibly poor, but what he did have was experience commissioning works of art and furniture and an amazing eye.’

Until the start of the Second World War, Derbyshire was a centre of cabinet making and French polishing in Britain and, as the Heldreich family business passed down the generations, its specialisms grew to take in antique furniture and restoration, piano restorations, French polishing and furniture conservation.

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Having trained at the Midlands School of French Polishing, Nigel started his career in 1985 making bespoke, personalised maquetry furniture, but set up Wheathills in 2001 after moving the business to a Georgian farmhouse of the same name. ‘Memory boxes developed from the idea of personalising furniture; today, they’ve become so popular they form about 80% of our custom,’ he explains.

Wheathills is the only company making memory boxes using the art of marquetry and, in some cases, micro-marquetry, which involves up to 100 pieces of timber per square inch.

Each box is made bespoke for the client. Although the outside might be attractively decorated, it’s inside that all the symbolism and personalisation takes place – typically, elements that are embedded might include gemstones, shells, photographs or precious metals that hold great personal significance to either the giver or receiver.

One of its most elaborate commissions to date was a reproduction of the Pantheon that involved 10,000 pieces of timber. ‘Of course, it was extremely expensive, but these are pieces of art that will last forever and be passed through the family.’

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