Archive for the ‘Chinese Antique Jade’ Category

Chains and Vases Carved Out of a Single Piece of Jade Rock

July 2, 2012

The Chinese have revered and carved Jade and Nethrite for generations, and still do.  The modern 20th century carvers use all the latest machinery and technology to carve this very hard, brittle material.  But all of the antique jade carvings were lovingly made by hand and have been highly valued throughout the ages.

Personally, I far prefer the antique jade carvings (up to the first part of the 19th century) as these were always carved from a single stone, with rather basic tools, and they often took a very long time to complete.  Yet, most of these carvings have qualities that are far more beautiful than the modern ones.  They managed to carve attractive bottles and vases that are wonderfully hollowed out, sometimes through such a small opening at the top, as is the case with Snuff Bottles, it is incredible how they have been made, so that even the shoulders of the bottles are finely hollowed.

What I also find fascinating are the amazing Chinese jade vases, with covers, which are connected by a chain, where everything has been carved out of just one stone!  I even know of some jade vases with covers that have a double chain attaching the lid to the vase on either side.

There are some where the cover is separate and the double chain is used to hang the vase from an elaborate, often pierced, carved jade hanger.

I have not found any reference on how jade chains are carved on the Internet, or anything about jade-chained vases so I decided to publish this article.  But I did find an interesting video, on how to carve chains from a single piece of wood (by searching YouTube for ‘wood carving chain’) and I presume this is how the chains would also have been carved in other materials, including jade.

But to consider how difficult it must be to conceive of carving a beautiful well proportioned (well hollowed out) vase, plus a perfectly fitting cover, with a long chain of evenly formed links, all to be carved out of a single jade boulder is something I find quite staggering!

Which brings me to the question of value.  For some reason, currently, Chinese jade-chained vases are not that highly valued, in monetary terms, compared with other antique jade carvings. This is because connoisseurs and antique jade collectors consider them, as nothing more than cabinet pieces, simply made for display rather than for use, and worse still they were only made for the export market!

I too, as a collector, tend to value more the Chinese carvings that were made for personal use; such as pendants, snuff bottles, water droppers, archer’s rings and handling pieces.  But as there are such an amazing amount of high quality skills involved, in carving these chained vases, I do feel that these lovely works of art should be far more highly appreciated. Fashions do exist in the collecting world and I am sure one day, these chained vases will be highly sought after.

The author has been a very keen collector for many years
in helping to create ‘The Cohen collection’

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Some of the Wealthiest Chinese Are Now Investing in 18th Century Jade!

November 6, 2011

Jadeite and Nephrite (although different both are referred to as jade) have been highly valued for thousands of years, especially by the Chinese.   But for so many years it has mostly been the Western world that took over this fascination of collecting antique jade carvings.   Here in Europe and the USA much has been published and there have been many dedicated collectors and antique jade experts that created and influenced the market values.

But recently the wealthy Chinese have become very interested in jade again, because they are investing so heavily, prices have been going through the roof!   But as a collector it is apparent that non-Chinese collectors have very different views about what to value most.   Carvings that make clever use of natural flaws in the stone, or that use coloured inclusions so brilliantly are not highly valued by these Chinese buyers, not nearly as much as carvings in pure white jade!

So far these Chinese are mainly regarding jade as an alternative investment commodity.   As most of the usual forms of investment, currencies and property have all proved so precarious, perhaps these successful millionaires are being very shrewd!

I do not know if they have been influenced by the huge increase in the raw material prices.   The finest pieces of the Hetian Nephrite have only been found about 4,500 meters above sea level in the North of the Kunlun Mountain, Xinjiang, even though it is a very difficult climb, little oxygen and bitterly cold, reports now indicate that there is not much more to be found.   There are other sources of Jade; the next best in quality mainly comes from Burma.   But thinking of jade as an investment over the last ten years, whilst gold has increased by about 3 times, the best Hetian jade raw material has increased in price by 100 times!

The pebbles, (sometimes referred to as Hetian pebble, or seed jade) are only found in the riverbed.   These are highly valued because they originate from the jade seams in the Kunlun mountain, broken out by the glacier, then after years of natural weathering in the fast flowing river, these jade rocks are gradually ground smooth into pebbles, any weaknesses within these stones are smashed in this process, so that the remaining Hetian pebbles are only of the finest quality.

For antique collectors there are many aspects to be aware of, apart from the quality of the carving and the period of the piece, when buying jade, there is another consideration that can add value, that being the colour of the stone.   Many people do not realise how many colours of jade there are.   Antique jade carvings can be found in white, mutton-fat, various shades of green, yellow and lilac, black, even in red, and these can be a factor in the price.   Also if there is a seal (so many wonderful pieces have no signature) but if the seal is genuine (many were inscribed later) then this too adds to the value. So for a very long period these were the main criteria that influenced the price.

Gradually antique jade of quality, has become more and more valuable. But this caused the Chinese to cash in by making lots of new copies of earlier jade pieces and they carved various others in less valuable stones, but called them jade too!   So many have flooded the market.   They have also discovered ways of adding colour to jade.   However, very few experienced collectors found any difficulty in recognising these, as nothing more than the cheap fakes, or modern copies that they are.   To be sure that the colour has not been added requires strong magnification, so it is not that easy to check.   I believe that over time the dyed stones revert back to the original colour, so to pay extra for bright lavender, yellow or green jade could prove most painful!

Subsequently some of these modern fakes are so much better (the carving has improved) and there are now a number of more difficult to identify fakes.   So there has become another important factor that affects the value and this is the question of ‘Provenance’.   Every jade is now regarded with suspicion, unless it can be established as having been in a well known collection, or auction that dates back to the time when these fakes were easy to spot, or better still, to an even earlier period.

But now values are changing dramatically in a way that is hard for collectors like myself to understand!   These Chinese investors are buying back their heritage, but more as an investment than as collectors.   They have decided that 18th Century pieces of a pure colour with no flaws and certainly not mottled are their preference, they particularly prize pure bright white jade, or pure green, as well as the bright emerald green that is often used in jewellery.   Also any of these jade carvings that happen to have a good seal mark (even if this seal is not genuine) now command a much higher value.

Talking of a much higher value, this is where we older collectors are now really confounded.   Because if we consider a well carved, good quality pure white 18th century jade carving, that would normally have sold for our expected highest value, in any auction these days, this same piece will now probably sell for anything from 4 to 8 times that figure, to a Chinese investor!   Is it possible that in time these buyers will eventually also value the wonderful craftsmanship that most of us collectors appreciate and love?

The author has been a very keen collector for many years in helping to create ‘The Cohen collection’.

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Amazing Pictures From Flaws or Inclusions Found in Stones!

November 21, 2009

By John N. Cohen

Everyone will I am sure appreciate well hollowed stone antique Chinese snuff bottles, once handled, as the lovely shapes and purity of the stones used just cannot fail to impress.  One would imagine that the approach would have been to avoid any inclusions or flaws, and to form the bottle from only the best parts of the stone.  This often was the case.  But what I find even more fascinating, is the amazing way they deliberately and brilliantly, took advantage of natural flaws and inclusions often found present in these stones.

Most quartz and jade stones have an outer layer of a different colour, particularly the pebbles from the riverbeds.  They also have faults and flaws plus other coloured material, often deep in the stone. Sometimes these can be very thin skin-like inclusions, whilst in others large chunks are found.

When one considers that no one knows just what is inside any of these rocks until, as the cuts are made and the secrets of the stone are revealed, they discover how pure, or otherwise, the stone really is.  It is with the stones that have inclusions or flaws that ‘Picture Agate’ snuff bottles are made.  The best of these incredible bottles, once completed, manage to make the inclusion, that forms the image, look as if it has appeared in just the right place as if to order!

There are different types of work within this group of snuff bottles and the first ones are what we call ‘Cameo’ carvings. These take advantage of any outer skin or blob type of inclusion (of a different colour); they can be quite thick and are carved in relief.  Another type is called ‘Shadow Agates’ and these take advantage of markings in the stone where, with the help of only a little carving, an image is created.  Lastly, the most fascinating ones are called ‘Silhouette Agates’ but in this group no apparent carving is required.  The image is achieved mainly by the angle and choice of shape, as well as the size and position of the bottle to be formed out of the rock so that the inclusion becomes an image. These bottles have to be seen to be believed.

What is really mind blowing to me is the fact that there are even some of these bottles with pictures on both sides!

Sadly, few of them were signed.  We only know that there was a certain school of carvers known as the ‘Suzhou School’.  Their works are easily recognised by the style and quality of the carving, plus the fact that they make use of every mark in the stone to form the picture.  They are amazing bottles when good, but there are many later works that tend to look too stiff and the carving lacks the more fluid artistic touch of the master carvers.  Unfortunately, hardly any of these bottles are really well hollowed.

Our First Chinese Snuff bottle
So to describe my first purchase, this was a ‘Shadow Agate picture bottle’ involving a little carving, and very well hollowed.  It is a most appropriate subject and colour for a snuff bottle because the russet inclusions have been used to show ‘Putai Ho-Shang’.  He is always depicted as a very corpulent man with a bare chest and abdomen and he is the patron saint of tobacconists.  In this bottle he appears surprised by a bat whilst sitting below some tobacco leaves. The bat to the Chinese is a good luck symbol.  You can see how easily he appears, nicely placed within the bottle yet only his head and a suggestion of his hand have been carved. (See the photograph by using the link at the bottom of this article).

We now own a number of ‘Picture Agates’ and to illustrate the different types described, the photograph of the Duck with Lingzhi fungus in its beak is a good ‘Silhouette’ example.  Incidentally, the fungus is a symbol for wishing long life.  This bottle is very unusual as there is a recess carved originally to create the image that serves as a built in dish. (See the photograph by using the link at the bottom of this article).

Lastly, a superb bottle of fishes with pictures on both sides: the pair of fishes on one side are ‘Cameo’ carved and to the Chinese represent fidelity and happy conjugal rights in marriage.  On the other side a fish and aquatic plants make use of every mark in the stone, all this on a well shaped bottle that is very well hollowed.  All these bottles illustrated were made between 1750 and 1860. (See the photograph by using the link at the top of this article).

To effectively judge hard stone snuff bottles, the first consideration should be concerned with the overall artistic impression.  You need to be satisfied that the work looks well composed and well positioned and that the images formed are flowing rather than stiff and awkward.  The next stage is to have a closer look at the technical skills.  When I look at a cameo type of carving I study the shape and finish of the background, close to the edge of the carving.  On poorer bottles this can be indented, uneven and not so well polished as the rest.  Really fine examples look as if the raised cameo part has somehow been glued onto a beautifully formed bottle.  Engraved work at its best is very precise and provides the detail. When closely looking (under magnification) at a poor bottle these engraved parts can look very crude.