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Centuries of Chinese Silver     ...Part 1

I was asked to write an article for the Canadian Magazine Jewellery Business. "Centuries of Chinese Silver" appears in their February 2007 edition. The original article is no longer available on line.The following is a version of that article. It was great working with the folks there and I hope you enjoy the article... Susan

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08-02-11-1 Centuries of Chinese Silver  Part 1

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One of the most rapidly expanding markets in the field of antique and vintage jewelry is the world of Chinese silver ornaments. Several unusual forces have combined to drive prices upward....the expansion of the middle class in China, the increased access to information and world markets via the Internet as well as the publication of the first book on the subject have all combined to create a hot market.

Chinese antiquities and works of art have been eagerly sought after by western collectors since the summer palace of the Chinese emperor was sacked in 1850. For 150 years collectors have bought porcelain, enamels, bronzes, art and large jade carvings. Virtually all silver was over looked and undervalued until the late 20thc.

The Chinese have been making silver ornaments since 2000 BC and this craft has been handed down from father to son. Silversmiths and master stone carvers assumed that their sons would follow their craft. Young boys would learn the rudiments of their father's trade at the age of three......by ten or twelve they would be apprenticed in the shop that employed their father. This meant nimble fingers, immense patience and attention to detail that is reflected in all the decorative arts of China.

By the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) the Chinese produced the finest silverwork in Asia. In the 19thc the only silver imported by Louis Comfort Tiffany came from China. Silver adorned the wealthiest members of Chinese society. Gold was not in common use outside of the nobles and members of the court. The use of silver ornament extended through all the cultural minority groups. For many the first gift to a baby boy was a silver collar for protection from evil spirits, (high infant mortality rates were blamed on evil spirits); women wore elaborate silver hairpieces, carried silver needle cases handed down from their mothers, silver apron holders which hung from long decorative silver chains. Men had silver grooming kits, châtelaines, tobacco pouches and mustache combs all decorated with silver.

The Qing silversmiths were masters of repoussé, engraving, and chasing ......all techniques well known in the west.....but the jewelry that they produced will still look unusual to the western eye. Each piece is elaborately decorated with a symbolic language that reflects the mythology of 17th and 18thc China. Objects of adornment both functional and decorative are also amulets and talisman. The symbol best known to the west, the dragon, represents male power. Two dragons chasing a pearl denote fertility and will often be seen on wedding ornaments and jewelry......the tortoise appears as a symbol of longevity and steadfastness....the pig as prosperity....fish as abundance.....the bat happiness.....hundreds of symbols easily recognizable to most Chinese.

In 1911 the Qing dynasty fell out of power ending 2000 years of imperial rule and the Republic of China emerged with a new set of values and priorities. Many of the objects of personal adornment that were associated with court life were shipped to international markets. Other pieces were reworked into designs that would appeal to western tastes. It is common to find a piece of early 19th century silver used as the centerpiece of a 20th century necklace. [Many Mandarin Court Necklaces -originally 108 beads- were reworked to create 3 or 4 necklaces.]

This movement of Chinese silver to western markets culminated in the 1970s. The Communist government required that all citizens surrender all silver ornaments to the government as an act of patriotism. The government then sold vast amounts of vintage handmade silver ornaments of every variety to western buyers...by the kilo.

As a result of these two massive waves of export there are now large quantities of beautiful older pieces of china trade silver in North America and Europe. With the industrial boom in China today has come a parallel demand for luxury goods.....which includes all the pieces of their cultural history and all those great pieces of early silver and adornment that were shipped to western countries over the last 100 years.

In 2003 the first book on Chinese silver jewelry was published, 400 Years of Silver by Margaret Duda. The book contains 500 photos of more than 1000 pieces of Qing Dynasty silver. Well researched , with an extensive explanation of the symbolic language of the Chinese silversmiths, as well as the history of their work, this book has had a dramatic effect on the market .... prices on online sites have tripled since the book's publication.

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