Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Antique Chinese Carved Silver Rings

From the earliest days of Chinese civilisation, a royal concubine reportedly received a silver ring each time she spent the night with the emperor. Throughout the lovemaking, she wore the ring on her right hand. Upon being discharged, she switched the ring to her left hand. If she became pregnant, she earned a gold ring.

By the Qing dynasty, even common women could afford simple rings and these have survived in plain silver or in a slightly more elaborate enamelled form. The designs were spare fruits, fish, flowers, animals of the zodiac, double happiness symbols and the swastika.

More intricate imagery covered the rings of wealthier citizens. On such pieces, we can find detailed flowers, animals and birds, and the ever popular frog for fertility.

Rings featuring engraved stacks of books might have been owned by either a man or a woman. Since wealthy, privately educated women were writing and publishing poetry as early as the 17th century in China, it's entirely possible that they wore rings bearing literary themes.

Rings engraved with theater scenes often referred to as "opera rings" represented a unique tradition. Traveling Peking opera companies sold such rings as souvenirs of their performances.

Pictures below are the antique Chinese carved silver rings from my collection. The rings features a wonderful figural design and are adjustable.

Silver ring with human figures.
Ring 1

Ring 1

Silver ring with human figures.
Ring 2

Ring 2

Silver enamelled ring with human figures.
Ring 3

Silver ring with human figures.
Ring 4

Silver ring with human figures.
Ring 5

Silver ring with 'Fu', 'Lu' and 'Shou' figures.
Ring 6

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Qing Dynasty Chinese 'Feng Guan' / Phoenix Crown / Headgear

A 'feng guan' (鳳冠), literally means phoenix crown, is a Chinese traditional headgear for women. It was worn by noblewomen in the Ming and Qing Dynasty on ceremonies or official occasions. It is also the traditional headgear for brides. It is adorned with dragons, phoenixes made with kingfisher feathers, pearls and gemstones. These pearls, gemstones and more kingfisher feathers are made into ornamental flowers, leaves, clouds and phoenixes. Phoenix crowns were first developed in Tang Dynasty, and were worn through the Ming and Qing Dynasty, with many changes made with time.

There are different varieties of 'feng guan', depending on the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants adorned, and the presence or absence of certain ornaments.

Pictures below showing a very elegant Qing Dynasty Chinese 'feng guan' or headgear from my collection. It is decorated mostly with kingfisher feathers.

The beautiful and painstakingly intricate technique of using kingfisher feathers has been mastered in China for centuries.

Their widespread use in hair ornaments and jewellery gave rise to their being acknowledged as symbols of feminine beauty, while the sheer reality that a kingfisher is an extremely small bird and difficult to either catch or rear in captivity caused them to become symbols of wealth and social standing.

The striking iridescent blue of kingfisher feathers has been highly prized in China for at least 2500 years. While once only available to the Imperial court, over the centuries this filtered down into the aristocratic strata of society and became another source for silversmiths to create an art form that was excruciatingly difficult and time consuming to produce. The art of kingfisher feather inlay, known in China as the art of 'tian-tsui', literally means “dotting with kingfishers”.

China’s fascination with the kingfisher appears to have begun during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 – 476 BC), when poems were written extolling their colour and beauty. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), palaces were decorated with kingfisher hangings and wall panels. Unfortunately, not many kingfisher feathers ornaments from the early age survive to this day, as they are notoriously favoured by certain small insects.

The art of feather inlay requires a base and frame to contain it; since only the seriously wealthy were able to afford it, this “captive audience” was of obvious attraction to the silversmith. The inlay process requires cutting tiny pieces of iridescent feathers and combining it with crystal-clear glue that would be set within a silver gilt frame and base, to give an overall effect that was not visually dissimilar from cloisonné work. Sometimes the inlay work is so fine that it is almost impossible to understand these are feathers and could easily be mistaken for enamel work.

Using the special glue treatment the art of 'tian-tsui' required was almost exclusively used in hair ornaments, coronets and brooches. The technique simply was too fragile to be incorporated into usable silver objects. It required a successful or a well-funded silversmith to be able to afford the raw materials to make 'tian-tsui'. Canton (in present day Guangdong) became the main centre for the art.

The 19th century was the swan song era for 'tian-tsui'. This was not for reasons of changing fashions but simply because the population of kingfishers had been decimated by the trade in killing them. The finest kingfisher feathers were to be had from Cambodia and were prized above all. The export trade of feathers to China was one of the largest export earners for the Khmer Empire and was used to fund the construction of many magnificent temples, including Angkor Wat. The mass slaughter of the kingfisher in Cambodia led not only to the species becoming almost extinct but it is believed to have contributed considerably to the decline of the Khmer Empire itself when demand could no longer be met. Hence, Cambodian kingfisher became such a status symbol in China that it could only be afforded by royalty.

In the 19th century, 'tian-tsui' was also being exported to the established Chinese communities in San Francisco, New York and in Australia.

In order to have kingfisher feathers at their brightest and most vibrant, they should ideally be pulled from a live bird. Needless to say the art of 'tian-tsui' is banned today. The art died in 1940s but some pieces may be found in Europe and in America. It is still quite obscure and as a result, pieces can be acquired for relatively little cost given the sheer skill and time it took to create them.

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