A puzzle box (also called a secret, or trick box) is a box that can only be opened through some obscure, and sometimes complicated, series of manipulations. Some puzzle boxes may require only a simple squeeze in the right spot, whereas others may require the subtle movement of several small parts, to open the box. Some puzzle boxes are comparable to burr puzzles.
Valuables may be kept in trick boxes to deter a thief from trying to access its contents. Puzzle boxes have been made all over the world, including Morocco, Poland and South America. Japanese puzzle boxes (Romanji: himitsu-bako, lit. "secret box") are typically covered in complicated patterns of rich wood inlay, called yosegi, and feature complex mechanisms that may require anywhere from two to over 200 movements to open.
Japanese puzzle boxes range from as small as an inch long to over a foot in length. They are produced in a few towns in small area of Japan. The town of Hakone in particular is regarded as the center of the creation of this National Traditional Handicraft as designated by the Minister of Industry in 1984. On some of the finest boxes the artisan uses a technique known as Moku-Zougan, which is a picture made of various woods and often based on some of the woodblock prints from the late 1700s. The majority of these boxes depict one or more of three common elements, which in the 1780s were clearly visible from Hakone:
Many of these scenes depict a house tucked into the trees with a boat on the lake and Mt. Fuji clearly visible in the background. 'San' means 'three' and 'sui' represents the three elements of nature – water, trees, and mountains – combined to form the Sansui scene familiar to almost everyone who grew up in the 1950s and through the 1970s.
These boxes were made in various complexities and consist basically of 4 moves with a variety of twists to trick the person trying to open the boxes, but the real trick is finding the correct series of movements that can range from 2 to 125 moves. Mr. Yoshio Okiyama, until recently, was credited with making the most complex box which requires 125 moves to open. He also made boxes which require from 78 to 90, 102, 122 moves to open. His final box, made while he was in his late 70's, was a 119 move box with a wood picture of a Geisha on the top and a bow, as on a gift, on the bottom. Only 19 of these complex boxes were made for sale while another 8 in a different style were made for sale in foreign markets. Mr. Okiyama died in March 2003, approximately at the same time as another master of this craft, Mr. Kenji Suzuki. Another box-maker, Mr. Yoshiyuki Ninomiya, is regarded as one of the finest Himitsu-Bako to ever grace a collector's display area. Finding the Kannuki (sliding key sections) on one of his boxes is often nearly impossible to the untrained eye.
Recently, boxes with up to 324 steps have surfaced, and been credited to Hiroshi Iwahara.
American Puzzle boxes have emerged in the 1990s with the creation of the relatively inexpensive Heartwood's brand of boxes, and various other craftsmen. Some key craftsmen of the American Puzzle Box era are Eric Kelsic, Jonathan McCabe, Randal Gatewood, Kagen Schaefer, Lee Krasnow, Makishi, Eric Fuller, Robert Yarger, The Sandfield Brothers, Kathleen Malcolmson, and Perry McDaniel. Key aspects of the typical American Puzzle box are woods indigenous to the Americas, and, in some instances, a smaller sized box in relation to boxes made in Japan. Some craftsmen are breaking the mold in creating boxes with metal, natural gemstones, and electrical components. Some collectors find this intriguing and imaginative, while other collectors oppose the idea of not having a puzzle box solely made from wood.