Out of the Attic

Chinese Mandarin Court Necklace Restoration Project

Introduction

In 2007 when we were just getting the blog started, one of the first pieces I photographed for Susan was a Mandarin Court Necklace. There are two things that I remember the most. The first was trying to figure out how to lay out a very large and complicated piece to illustrate it to its best advantage. The second was how different it was from the other pieces in the collection.

When Susan wrote in the post, “The Mandarin Court Necklace is the goal of the serious collector. Legend has it that the Court necklace was patterned after a mala (a string of Tibetan prayer beads) that were given to Emperor Shunzhi (1644-1661) as a gift from the Dalai Lama,” I really understood why.

mandarin_court_necklace

[ click on images to enlarge …. photos by: RP (Bob) Birt ]

While I have had the privilege of photographing hundreds of beautiful and amazing pieces (some willing and not so willing to pose for a shot) and have had favourites, I became fascinated by the Court Necklaces (Susan says that it is some kind of ‘guy thing’). I have tracked most of the public sales, either on eBay or private houses and have studied them as best I can – as a Westerner who is limited to English or computer translations.

The Court Necklace was part of a uniform, not unlike any other uniform that had rules, regulations and symbols that denote rank and position. Along with the Rank Badges, Hat Ornaments, Robes and other Court apparel, the materials, colors and design were strictly defined by rank and proximity to the Royal Family.

The construction of the Necklace was also a matter of strict form. The number of the different types of beads, where the strings of counting beads were attached, etc., are all fixed.

So over the years it has been interesting to see Necklaces described as ‘original’ or ‘complete’ that have been restrung with disregard to the fundamental form or to see elements that would never be on an authentic necklace or to see new beads used to fill in for a missing piece.

Where to draw the lines

If one were to develop a grading standard for Mandarin Court Necklaces, where would one start? The antique world has a number of criteria for different types of ‘collectables’ ranging from furniture to pottery and toys. The art world has criteria on the amount of restoration that can be done to ‘restore’ a painting: but the Court Necklace was not created to be hung on a wall, nor was it produced to be put in a box and laid away for future generations. It was meant to be worn and was subject to ‘wear’.

0008Most of the elements of a Court Necklace are very durable. Stones, metal work, enamel and fruit pits have long lifetimes. But the necklace was worn with the Prayer and Counting Beads draped over the front and the Fodouda/Counter weight/ Drop assembly was worn on the back, where it would be subject to a lot of accidental damage.

To complicate things a bit further, since the necklaces were subject to breaking, did someone discard an entire necklace if it broke and a couple of beads were lost? And then there is the question of promotion: on a military uniform it is often just a question of changing a bar or adding a star or a stripe. I imagine that sometimes a rank badge could be just sewn on and a hat button swapped out for a new color. But what about a Court Necklace?

So it is possible that a Court Necklace could ‘originally’ have had parts replaced and pieces mended by its owner.

The ‘weak link’ in the lifespan of the Necklace is the material that is used to string it all together. Based on a mala, beads were expected to slide (unlike the construction of say a Catholic Rosary where beads are generally joined by metal links or knotted cord). So, over time, the deterioration of the stringing material (most often a plied silk) was a major factor in the preservation of a ‘complete’ necklace. This also included the thin silk cord used to wrap the various connections.

All of this to say that, over time, we developed three broad classifications for Court Necklaces: 1. Original, where all of the parts of the necklace were intrinsic to it and would be noted if it was restrung or repaired, whether it was complete or partial. 2. Tribute, where all of the parts of the necklace came from other verified partial necklaces and was assembled with the appropriate specifications. 3. Reproduction, where new parts were added to create a facsimile.

A very simple policy was followed. All of the repairs and work done would be disclosed and any original materials that needed to be replaced would be included with the piece.

This is an example of an ‘Original – Partial’ Mandarin Court Necklace Susan blogged about.

By Susan August 12, 2011

Chinese_Mandarin_Court_Necklace-22Chinese_Mandarin_Court_Necklace-4

“Lately, there seem to be a number of Court Necklaces being offered on the market, mostly through eBay, and the quality and prices vary wildly. Some are obvious fakes that have been thrown together to take advantage of the interest in the market, some are reconstructions from several different necklaces, and there is much debate about what is ‘original’ vs. ‘restored’. Given the age of the delicate silk thread that was used, necklaces may have been restrung during the Qing Dynasty or modified by an owner as they rose in rank at the court. It is a difficult evaluation to make.”

This necklace is a ‘Partial’, a term we use to denote that some of the beads are missing but that all of the major elements are original to the necklace. At some point in time, the silk thread must have broken and 12 of the original 108 beads were lost. The necklace was restrung with the remaining 96 beads distributed evenly with the head beads.

This is an example of a ‘Tribute Necklace‘ made by combining the parts of two original partial court necklaces. It would be almost impossible for someone to authenticate since all of the components are ‘appropriate’ and match.

0055-001

 

Out of the Attic

One of the things that we have long speculated about is, “How would one give provenance to a Mandarin Court Necklace, especially now that they have become a popular collectable and so many ‘fakes and replicas’ are seen on the market?” This has become a pressing issue for all antique Chinese jewelry as well.

We felt that one of the ways was to find pieces that had made their way to North America, especially during the Qing period or at least before the popularity of collecting created the ‘knock off industry’. We also felt that the east coast of the US, especially the areas engaged with the China trade of the 1800’s, would be a prime area. In the areas outside of Boston or New York City, there are miles of old Victorian houses whose attics are potential warehouses for Chinese Ornaments, acquired years ago and forgotten, buried under the layers of generational stuff-sediment.

We put aside the theory and while it would become a topic now and again, there was always much to do and too little time to do it.

Until… one day…

The story begins with an email.

I just came across your website and hope you can give me some information about a necklace I found among my Aunt’s and Grandmother’s possessions…”

I responded and asked if a picture could be sent that showed all of the pieces of the necklace. The owner was kind enough to send the following: clip_image009

I wrote back and asked if she could provide more information as to how she came into possession of the necklace.

She responded:

“…It turned up among my aunt’s possessions. She lived in the same house in Newton Centre, MA, until she moved to a care facility… her mother (my paternal grandmother) lived and died in that house, and that neither of them threw anything out EVER.

Around 1990 my husband and I had less than a week to go through this large two-story house filled with a truly daunting amount of “stuff”. We had to decide how much of the precious stuff we could afford to ship back to Oregon and whether or not we could find room for it.

For example, here are some of the things we found: my aunt’s high school prom dress, the family’s WW2 ration book with unused coupons in it, every letter my father and uncle ever wrote to my aunt or grandmother, etc.

I hadn’t remembered the necklace, then came across it again a few months ago while I was going through some of the cartons of my aunt’s possessions.”

clip_image011

After many emails and building a wonderful relationship, it was agreed that we would undertake the restoration and just before the holidays, the project began:

 

 

 

 

NEXT: Some Challenges and a Few Surprises

 

layout

We were aware of the condition of the necklace from the pictures that we received and knew that one of the 3 counting bead drops is missing, so a complete restoration to its original state wasn’t possible. Also, there was major damage to the main drop which would require careful work by our magical jeweller Ralph Schroetter with his laser.

0002a-00100100005

[ click on images to enlarge …. photos by: RP (Bob) Birt ]

The major challenge was the difference in the size of the holes of the beads.

Every Mandarin Court Necklace that we have either owned or seen in photographs was designed to be strung by one continuous cord or, especially in the case of carved nuts and bone, with plied silk.

There also appeared to be a collar around the large holes that acted as a spacer to prevent the beads from hitting each other. This was true for both the hard stone beads and the metal/enamel head beads. In fact, Susan had even developed a technique using silver wire to make necklaces from court beads to accommodate these large holes. (See blog on “Beads, Beads and Beads” )

003250007

The necklace for this project had the carved nut prayer beads strung on red plied silk but the holes in the head beads were incredibly small – the black silk cord barely fit through them – and the size of the carved nut holes were very large, as seen in this comparison.

Our assumption was that somehow the original plied silk would compress to such an extent that through some technique it could be passed through the head bead (which would then also act as a anchor to prevent movement along the entire necklace) and would eventually be wrapped with thread at the junction for attachment to the Fodouda/Counter weight/ Drop assembly.

0030-0010002n0006a

If we had not had the absolute certainty that all of these beads came from the same necklace, we would have sworn that they were from another!

This roadblock became known as the ‘Itty-Bitty-Hole Mystery‘… one that had to be solved if this beautiful Court Necklace was ever to be restored.

A great effort by Michael Cook, our silk specialist, created a modern silk that was able to pass through both the small holes in the Head Beads and was still thick enough to fill the carved pits.

0007

It was time to move on to starting the restringing process… or so we thought!

The Hidden Inscription

When we examined the Buddha Head (Fodouda) in the necklace, we saw something that we had never seen before, perhaps because most of the necklaces we have had were of some form of hard stone or often in the case of enamel, one formed piece. But inside this one was a stamp or engraving in traditional Chinese.

0006

One could make the assumption that this stamp or engraving would never be seen by anyone but the artisan who put the necklace together, since the two pieces were never intended to be separated, assuming they would spend their ‘lives’ joined together.

Was it a ‘maker’s mark’ or was it a hidden wish or dedication to the owner? Could it have been a way to be able to identify the necklace if it was ever to go astray or if the ownership was ever disputed?

We disassembled the Fodouda so that it could be photographed and documented. Given that neither of us reads Chinese, we began circulating the photo to see if anyone could shed some light on the message left inside.

0003

Since all these characters are not very clear, different friends gave me different answers. We checked again and again, and there now seems to be some consensus on three characters.

The first is 唐 or Tang in pinyin. This is also a popular surname in China.

The second is 王 or WANG in pinyin. Wang literally means “King”.

The third is 成 or CHENG in pinyin. Cheng literally means “succeed”, but so many Chinese people use CHENG as part of their names.

We hope that this mystery will be eventually solved but it was time to move on to the stringing process and complete the assembly of the necklace.

The Dilemma and the Decision

We knew before we started the project that one of the counting bead string drops was missing along with having 2 counting beads smashed beyond repair. Because the enamelled drops were so unique and obviously part of the set, it would be impossible to replace one, even for aesthetic reasons to complete the ‘balance’ of the necklace.

The most beautiful (stunning is perhaps a better word) feature of the necklace is the counter weight with the 2 deer on each side. It alone would be a breathtaking piece for a collector to own! All of the other pieces support and compliment it. There was no way that this original necklace should be tampered with.

The decision was made to assemble the necklace and leave both of the damaged counting beads on a string and not to replace the drop. While it perhaps is not as aesthetically ‘correct’ it is ‘what it is’: a beautiful example of a Mandarin Court Necklace which we believe to be authentic restored with modern silk tram and with some repairs to the main drop.

The last Step

The restringing and assembly is complete and the necklace has been sold at auction on eBay by one of our long time partners: MrBrokenPieces. We have also decided that the net proceeds from the sale will be donated to Susan’s favourite charity. The previous owner supports this decision, which is very generous of her.

[ A special thanks to Amelia for editing this article! ]

Private Collection Home