Antique Chinese Snuff Bottles – Heavy Stones That Really Float!
By John N. Cohen
When collecting Chinese antique snuff bottles, one can choose to collect glass, porcelain, bottles made from organic materials (such as amber or coral), or perhaps the inside painted bottles, but there is sure to be a time when one will decide to collect, or at least add some hardstone bottles.
Hardstone bottles can be found in a variety of materials such as jade, quartz, chalcedony, hair crystal, tourmaline and many more. There are some wonderful shapes and colours to be found and even some stone bottles have images, or pictures, formed from the natural inclusions found in the rock.
When studying auction catalogues one will now and then come across, within the description of antique stone bottles, the comment ‘well hollowed’ just as when discussing bottles with a dealer this term will also be used. When this comment is missed beware, as all good antique stone bottles should be ‘well hollowed’ and if they are not then suspect they are fakes!
Antique Chinese snuff bottles were made to be used and had to be well hollowed, to hold sufficient snuff, this raises the question how well hollowed is ‘well hollowed’? Most good antique bottles are considered well hollowed if the bottle will hold a good portion of snuff and does not feel too heavy. Remember, as a guide, they were often worn in the sleeve. But the most valuable finest stone snuff bottles are exceptionally hollowed out, so much so, that they often look like they have been blown (like glass). These are referred to as ‘eggshell thin’ or ‘floaters’ because although they were carved out of a rock they are so well hollowed, that they will float in water!
These stone bottles are examples of amazing skill, because all the hollowing out has been performed through a very small hole in the neck of the bottle. Even the areas we refer to as the shoulders of the bottle (these are most difficult areas to hollow out), have to be very thin, for the bottle to trap enough air to make it float.
There are some wonderful jade bottles that float, yet jade is one of the hardest stone to carve, not only is it an exceptionally hard material but it also has certain weaker points where it can easily fracture.
Having shown a couple of bottles (one well hollowed the other not) to lapidary workers, equipped with all the most modern cutting and drilling tools, to find out if they could change the poorly hollowed out bottle, into a well hollowed one and what it would cost. Not one would take on the task and the general view was, that even if they tried, the cost would be considerable, due to the time it would take them, but in addition no one would accept the risk involved, of possibly ruining the bottle in the process!
The explanation of how these antique stone bottles were originally carved and so well hollowed out, were all down to years of experience and the slow labour of love, where the carver did everything by hand without any thought about how much time it took.