Small boxes made of precious materials such as tortoiseshell and silver have been exchanged as luxury gifts and collected in the West and East for centuries (see Jaffer 2002). They were widely used throughout the Indies as items of status and luxury.
An important social custom in the Indies, to which the Dutch and other Europeans had to adjust, was the sirih ceremony, or pinang chewing, described in detail by travelers such as Rumphius (Veenendaal 1983). Declining a sirih quid offered at court was viewed as an insult, and Europeans soon adapted to the custom by carrying decorated sirih boxes such as these on important social visits. Sirih boxes with internal divisions for the ingredients and accoutrements to make a sirih quid are generally 20cm wide. According to Veenendaal the smaller boxes of tortoiseshell with silver mounts, but with no internal compartments, were possibly used to store ready-made sirih quids.
Perhaps it is of some interest that tortoiseshell is actually not the shell of a tortoise, but of the Hawksbill turtle.Tortoiseshell was attractive to use in the decorative arts because of it beautiful appearance, its durability and its organic warmth against the skin.