Thursday, August 1, 2013

Chinese Silver Fingernail Guards

The hollow-claws-shaped fingernail guards with metal sheaths that protected the long fingernails of the noble Chinese women who wore them remain perhaps the most famous symbol of the Manchurian high culture of the Qing dynasty. Whether gold, gilded, enamelled, tortoiseshell, jade or silver, a fingernail guard proclaimed the wearer's social status and a sign of her ability to rely upon servants to carry out any of her wishes, as she herself could perform no manual tasks. Therefore, nails could be cut only on certain auspicious days. An accidentally broken nail was a mishap verging on a tragedy.

Given these attitudes toward fingernails, it is not surprising that the Qing nobility greatly prized fingernail guards. Measuring from 3cm to almost 15cm in length, the guards came in pairs crafted to fit over the little finger and the ring finger. The right hand pair usually differed from the left hand pair.

Like the example from my collection (pictures below), most silver or gilded silver fingernail guards feature repoussé or engraved designs. Favourite subjects included bats, frogs, human figures, lotus blossoms, bamboo trees, the endless knots, coins and the eight symbols of the Buddhist Emblems.

If you study a Qing fingernail guard closely, you will see that the lower flaps are folded over one another to form a strong but adjustable band that fits over the finger. The smith soldered a second piece of a reinforcing plate with holes for ventilation at the back of the guard. If you find a metal guard without the overlapping flaps, it is probably an export piece made after the fall of the Qing dynasty.


Fingernail guards 1.
Length : 13cm



Fingernail guards 1.



The details of the workmanship of fingernail guards 1.



Fingernail guards 1.



Back view of fingernail guards 1.



The marks on the fingernail guards 1.



Fingernail guards 2.
Length : 12.5cm



Fingernail guards 2.



The details of the workmanship of fingernail guards 2.



Fingernail guards 2.



Back view of fingernail guards 2.



The marks on the fingernail guards 2.



Fingernail guards 3.
Length : 5cm



Back view of fingernail guards 3.



The details of the workmanship of fingernail guards 3.



Fingernail guard 4.
Length : 11cm



Fingernail guard 4.



Back view of fingernail guard 4.



The details of the workmanship of fingernail guard 4.



The details of the workmanship of fingernail guard 4.



As you can see, fingernail guards 1, 2 and 4 were nicely carved with crouching frogs. It is because in China, the frog is an emblem of Yin energy and thought of as good luck. In many cultures, the primary symbolic meaning of frogs deals with fertility. This is largely because these cultures observed frogs laying enormous quantities of eggs, therefore making it a fertility symbol as well as a symbol of abundance.

Summary of symbolic meaning of the frog :- Luck, purity, rebirth, renewal, fertility, healing, transitions, dreaming, opportunity, intermediary and metamorphosis.


Fingernail guard 5.
Length : 8cm



Back view of fingernail guard 5.



The mark on the fingernail guard 5.



Shou (壽), Chinese word/character/symbol for "longevity" on fingernail guard 5.



Fingernail guard 5.



Fingernail guard 6.
Length : 8cm



Back view of fingernail guard 6.



The mark on the fingernail guard 6.



The details of the workmanship of fingernail guard 6.



The details of the workmanship of fingernail guard 6.



Fingernail guard 7.
Length : 7cm



Back view of fingernail guard 7.



The mark on the fingernail guard 7.



The Chinese coins symbol on the fingernail guard 7 represents wealth, abundance and success in one's career.



A bamboo tree on the fingernail guard 7.



Fingernail guard 8.
Length : 7cm



Back view of fingernail guard 8.



Chinese coin symbol on the fingernail guard 8 represents wealth, abundance and success in one's career.



Bamboo trees on the fingernail guard 8.

2 comments:

  1. is there anyone that still make these?

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  2. Hi Mistar Fish,
    Indeed you can still find the reproduction ones in China at the souvenir stores. But, of course those are just the one made of all kinds of non-value metals. Believe it or not, if you happen to find any of these nail guards in America, the real ones already been soldered to a safety pin to make it as a brooch.

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