Chinese Snuff Bottles: Masterpieces in Miniature
by Eric J. Hoffman
Tobacco was first cultivated by Native Americans both as medicine and for pleasure. Smoking, chewing, and snuffing soon spread to Europe and then, via Portuguese traders in the early 1500s, to Japan and China. American Indians carried their snuff in small leather pouches, and the Europeans came to favor snuff boxes. The Chinese, however, dealing with southern China humidity and having no pockets in their clothing, preferred small, airtight bottles that could be secreted in the sleeve. With their long tradition of using similar bottles for medicines and scents, it was a small step to add a corked stopper with a tiny attached spoon for dipping out the snuff. The diminutive snuff bottle became not just a practical container for the powdered and perfumed tobacco; like the snuff box in Europe before it, the snuff bottle became an artistic adornment, a status symbol, and an opportunity to “display one’s character.” Snuff bottles provided a new medium for Chinese craftsmen to demonstrate their artistry, skill, and patience in a miniature art form that honored the Chinese ideal of “perceiving grandness through smallness" (xiao zhong jian da). While European snuff boxes were assembled piece by piece, Chinese craftsmen relished such challenges as hollowing out an entire pebble of hard, tough jade, leaving only a thin shell to contain the snuff.
By the end of the Ming Dynasty the basic form of the Chinese snuff bottle was established, laying the foundation for the Golden Age of snuff bottles, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Although various attempts were made to stamp out the tobacco habit, one emperor even threatening to behead sellers, snuffing continued among royalty and peasant alike. Eventually, an Imperial workshop was established for snuff bottles, and truly outstanding work began under the emperor Qianlong around 1736. The emperor had matched sets of 8, 10, or 12 bottles created to give away as favors to visitors. These Imperial bottles are now highly sought by collectors.
The Endless Variety of Snuff Bottles
Snuff bottles were made from any material that could be fashioned into an airtight enclosure, and the variety of different materials used by the Chinese staggers the imagination. Metals, porcelain, stones of every type, glass, and a wide variety of organic materials have all been used.
It was once thought that the first true snuff bottles were made of brass. The simple brass bottle shown here is engraved with a scrolling design and features slightly concave sides that serve as practical “snuff saucers.” Despite the inscription to the mid-1660’s, recent scholarship reveals that these bottles were made some time in the 19th century to honor the first emperor of the Qing dynasty. Other metal bottles were made from silver or gold.
In contrast, stone bottles are quite common. In China, of course, jade is revered above all other stones. But chalcedony, quartz, malachite, lapis, inkstone, and precious gemstones were also used. To create a stone bottle, the hard interior must be hollowed out, working only through the tiny mouth hole. As in many Chinese decorative arts, the difficult, laborious part is hidden from view. Stone bottles can be left plain to show off the beauty of the stone or decorated, sometimes in cameo relief. Some bottles are so exquisitely hollowed that, despite the dense material, they will float in water.
Snuff bottles can be made from either type of true jade, nephrite or jadeite. Nephrite bottles sometimes retain the russet under-skin of the original jade pebble, which can be worked into artistic cameo effects. Harlequin jade bottles—half black, half white—are especially showy and rare. Jadeite, which began arriving as tribute from Burma in the middle of the Golden Age, is noted for its brilliant apple green and lavender hues.
The Chinese invented porcelain, and it offered yet another material for fine snuff bottles. It is likely that the first porcelain snuff bottles were originally medicine containers because the scale of those and succeeding snuff bottles were the same. Too small to be thrown on the wheel, porcelain bottles are either molded or, less commonly, carved. Carved bottles by master artists are particularly fine and are highly sought. The porcelain can be left unglazed or decorated in underglaze or overglaze in a variety of palettes. Earthenware was also used; especially desirable are Yixing bottles fired from the fine-grained purple clay normally used for the best teapots.
Enameled bottles are another entire category, and some of the most artistic bottles are of this type. Typically, the finely painted scenes are enameled over copper or milk-glass, with reign marks (often apocryphal) painted into the recessed foot. Bottles bearing the legendary Guyuexuan (Ancient Moon Pavilion) hallmark are especially prized. Cloisonné bottles are attractive, but difficult to produce in such a small size.
Snuff bottles have been made from countless organic materials as well: ivory, bamboo, coral, coconut shell, hornbill, wood, tortoiseshell, amber, sharkskin, and tangerine skin. Even fruit pits and pine cones have been hollowed out and polished to make attractive bottles. Lacquer bottles can be either cinnabar, with deeply incised designs cut through dozens of layers of red lacquer, or lac burgauté, with hundreds of tiny mother-of-pearl pieces inlayed in formalized floral motifs. A rare type of bottle was made by growing a small gourd within a tight wood mold. The growing gourd pressed against the wood, picking up a design from the mold. The gourd was then dried and finished into a snuff bottle. The yield for gourd bottles was low, making them scarce.
Glass forms a major and varied category of snuff bottles, and some of the most expensive bottles are made from this commonplace material. The Chinese came relatively late to glass-making but caught up quickly. European glass-making techniques introduced to the Imperial court by Jesuit missionaries during the Golden Age led to many superb Chinese snuff bottles. Spots, dapples, swirls, and inclusions of goldstone create dazzling designs. The Chinese also became adept at using glass to imitate other materials, especially jade, agate, realgar, and other stones. Overlay glass bottles were formed by dipping a glass bottle in molten glass of a contrasting color and then carving down through the thin outside layer to the base material beneath. Magnificent designs, even in multiple colors, were created this way.
A particularly fascinating type of glass snuff bottle is the inside-painted bottle. Most people, on encountering their first example, cannot believe that such intricate scenes can be painted from the inside of a two-inch bottle, working entirely in reverse. Reverse painting on glass was already well established in the Qing dynasty. It required the artist to do everything in reverse: first paint the pupils of the eyes, then the eyes, then the face, ultimately ending with the background. But to do all this in a tiny snuff bottle, working through the narrow mouth hole of one quarter inch or less, seems almost superhuman.
To create an inside-painted bottle, a glass or rock crystal bottle is first roughened inside by shaking an abrasive slurry for a day or so. This creates a matte finish to hold the artist’s water colors. The artist then paints skillfully in reverse through the bottle’s mouth with a tiny bamboo brush-pen that is bent to a right angle at the tip. A quality bottle can take a month or more to complete. Especially amazing are those bottles with lengthy and well-brushed calligraphy inscriptions. Inside-painting reached its zenith from about 1875 to the early 20th century. Unlike most snuff bottles, inside-painted ones are usually signed. Bottles by the most highly skilled and famous painters bring large sums today. Among the most famous of these is Ma Shaoxuan (1869-1939), the “Rembrandt of inside-painted bottles.”
Most of the art motifs seen on Chinese snuff bottles will be familiar to aficionados of other Chinese arts. Symbolism is used extensively, such as the lotus to represent purity (because it rises pure and white from the muck, undefiled). Often a subtle rebus, pun, or homophone may form the decorative subject. For example, the word Fu (bat) is pronounced the same as Fu (happiness), so a motif of one or several bats conveys a wish for happiness. Other, multi-word rebuses are more complex, and much enjoyment can be found in trying to decipher their meanings.
Forming a Collection
As recently as 50 years ago, snuff bottle collectors occupied an insignificant, arcane corner of the Chinese decorative arts. Quality bottles could still be found for a few dollars, since hardly anyone was interested in them. The turning point came in 1960 with the publication of Lilla Perry’s ground-breaking book Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Adventures & Studies of a Collector. Her book opened the eyes of collectors worldwide and convinced museums to take their bottles out of the basement and put them on display. It also led to the formation of collectors’ organizations, the foremost today being the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society.
While the days of bargain snuff bottles are long gone, it is still possible to build a quality collection. The collector should steer clear of cheap “tourist grade” bottles. But certain types of quality bottles, displaying either choice material or fine craftsmanship, are still being made today and can be acquired very reasonably. Common types of older bottles can be had for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. But the finest antique bottles, on the rare occasions that they come to market, can cost $50,000 to $300,000 or more.
Copies and Fakes
With a growing number of collectors chasing a small number of antique snuff bottles, it is inevitable that copies and fakes abound. (A fake is a copy falsely offered as “of the period.”) The collector can take a number of steps to guard against expensive mistakes. First, of course, is to “train the eye” by learning as much about the subject as possible. Read books and journals, visit good museum collections, get to know other collectors and view their collections, or join a snuff bottle society. There is no substitute for seeing quality old bottles first-hand and close up. Then, for any serious expenditure, the standard advice applies: find a trustworthy, knowledgeable dealer who offers a Bill of Sale and return privileges.
Studying and collecting Chinese snuff bottles can be a fascinating hobby and a rewarding journey. Aside from stamp collecting, how many other hobbyists can house a lifetime collection in a space as small as a shoe box? Begin gently and study, learn, and enjoy.
© Eric J. Hoffman
(Originally published in Adornment, the Newsletter of Jewelry & Related Arts, Vol. 5, No. 2, May 2005. Revised version reprinted as “Miniature Masterpieces: Chinese Snuff Bottles” in Antiques and Auction News, Vol. 36, No. 38, Sept 2005)
(For the 20 figures click here.)
Chen, Jennifer. Bottles of Delight: The Thal Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles. Seattle : Seattle Art Museum , 1998.
Perry, Lilla S. Chinese Snuff Bottles: The Adventures & Studies of a Collector. Tokyo : Charles E. Tuttle, 1960.
Stevens, Bob C. The Collector’s Book of Snuff Bottles. N.Y. and Tokyo : John Weatherhill, 1976.
International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society http://www.snuffbottle.org
Far East Gallery http://hoffmanjade.com
Brief Contributor Info
Eric Hoffman is a retired space systems engineer with a 30+ year interest in Chinese jades. He is writing a book on the subject.