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Chinese Hollow Carved Serpentine Beads

My readers know that I love a good mystery… so perhaps the title of this post should really be… “The Mystery of the Chinese Hollow Carved Serpentine Beads… Vintage or Antique?”


We found this string of over 100 beads in the U.S. The beads are approximately 22mm …hollow carved, some pierced 12 times, some 16… we bought them from a gentleman who said they had been sitting in an Oklahoma warehouse for 50 or 60 years.

They were so dirty and caked with grime that it was impossible to tell exactly what they were but they had the appearance of carved jade head beads from Mandarin Court Necklaces…the carving was amazing.

It took me over three weeks to hand clean each bead inside and out with Q-Tips… there were different colors, sizes and two variations of carving… so a lot of time was also spent sorting and matching the beads. 


There was an old label stuck to the string written in Chinese. Westerners hear stories of large amounts of beads from Mandarin Necklaces having been gathered and sold by the lot to the West. Were these a totally amazing collection of old head beads or a more modern creation in the style of the Qing Dynasty? Were they labeled when they were sorted or when they were carved?

The label was a bit of a challenge… the writing was faded in places and torn in others… but with the help of Bob’s brother who frequently travels to China and one of our customers in Hong Kong, we were able to determine: they were labeled serpentine… from a factory in Henan Province… part of a date ‘May’ and because the Chinese characters were in the simplified form … it was felt that it was from early PRC.


There are 20 varieties of serpentine with various colors and hardness… it is frequently used in China for decorative carvings because it is softer and easier to carve than jade… but the two are often confused …one type of serpentine, called bowenite, is also referred to as Shou Chow Jade (Soochow jade) which has added to the confusion.

“Serpentine and bowenite are often used as jade substitutes by oriental carvers, and sold as jade by Western dealers…most dealers are honest but few are knowledgeable about jade.” Arthur and Grace Chu, Oriental Antiques and Collectibles.

When we brought the beads to my favorite gemologist, Ralph Schroetter, he confirmed that they were serpentine. The large 5mm hole on two sides allowed the craftsman to create such a large space, Ralph was able to take photos of the inside of the bead.

hole 2
Photos: Ralph Schroetter 
While the style of the beads is similar to the carving of head beads for a court necklace… the tool marks suggest a much later date…

Solving a mystery sure requires a lot of ‘leg work’… We have spent more time consulting authorities and examining these beads than any other piece I have written about. … but in the end I believe that I can say that these are… beautiful Chinese Hollow Carved Serpentine Vintage (c.1950) Beads carved in a Classical style.

Case closed!

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 7, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    They are bowenite, a hardness variety of serpentine which is harder than iron.

    Have fun

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