The snuff bottle was developed in China at the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) as a receptacle for snuff, a powdered tobacco introduced into China from the West and considered to have beneficial medicinal properties.
The emperors personally involved themselves in the design and crafting of these magnificent miniature containers, elevating their status to that of prized possessions treasured by members of the court, officials, and scholars. The functional purpose of these bottles, to hold snuff, was quickly transcended by their beauty and elegance. They became appreciated solely for their intrinsic esthetic quality and were eagerly collected from the beginning as works of art. More …
The finest artisans were commissioned to create unusual and individually attractive containers, which were highly esteemed as conversation pieces and miniature masterpieces. Snuff bottles embody the ancient Chinese artistic tradition of balancing art and purpose of use. To attain this perfection, carvers, sculptors, painters, and scholars used materials from nature and those man-made. Flaws in materials were often used to create uniqueness of design. The stopper brings closure to a bottle and is selected to enhance the final presentation.
Snuff bottles were often presented as gifts and many convey auspicious wishes to the recipient by using rebuses and symbols. Rebuses depict objects which have more than one meaning. For example, the word Fu may mean blessings or bats. The portrayal of five bats conveys the wish that the recipient be blessed by the five traditional Chinese good wishes namely long life, prosperity, health, love of virtue, and a natural death.
Glass was the first material used exclusively for the fashioning of snuff bottles. As a substance, it was highly prized. Bottles were made of clear monochrome glass in bright colors to imitate precious stones. In the 18th century, the Chinese independently made a bottle of layered glass or overlay glass, where one color is layered over another. The superficial layer is then carved to form a pattern or cameo-like design. Most glass bottles were blown into molds but others were carved from glass ingots using lapidary techniques.
True porcelain is the product of a secret Chinese process invented in the Tang dynasty (618-907). Snuff bottles were made of porcelain from the beginning of production, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the number of such bottles soared, with millions being produced each year.
Bottles made from organic materials are of animal and plant origin as distinguished from mineral material. Such materials include coral, amber, ivory, and hornbill. Amber is fossilized resin from an extinct species of pine tree. It is regarded as symbolic of courage.
The whole spectrum of materials considered precious or auspicious by Chinese culture were used to make snuff bottles. Chalcedony or agate belongs to a broad category of minerals that include moss agate, onyx, carnelian and jasper. Jade is the generic term used to include two distinct minerals, jadeite and nephrite. They differ in chemical structure but are closely related in physical properties. No other material has been so highly praised throughout Chinese history.