Flawless crystal; extremely well hollowed, with a flat lip and concave foot surrounded by a flat footrim 17201860 Height: 6 cm Mouth/lip: 0.73/2.30 cm Stopper: glass, carved with archaistic 'C'-scroll motifs surrounding an integral finial; coral collar Condition: Original material: one tiny icy flaw at the shoulder on one main side, upper left in illustration, not obtrusive; otherwise, flawless material. Bottle: possible very minor trim on inner lip to remove minute nibbles, but possibly made that way; otherwise, flawless condition
Provenance: Fahardi (New York, 1978) Gerd Lester (1986)
Published: Treasury 2, no. 189
Exhibited: Musée de la Miniature, Montélimar, 2000
Commentary: Crystal in its purest form is the colourless variety of crystalline quartz. Such flawless material is only found in single crystals (here, using the other sense of the word to mean the structure of the material). Single crystals of considerable size can be found. There are vases from the mid-Qing period made from single, colourless and relatively flawless crystals which stand more than a foot high in their finished forms. Gigantic crystals weighing over a thousand pounds have been found in parts of the world, but the above-mentioned group of vases seems to represent the Qing practical limit for crystal carvings of relatively flawless material.
With a finished work of art in crystal, retaining no evidence of its original outer form, there is no way of knowing whether a bottle such as this was made from a single pure crystal large enough to produce just this bottle in flawless material or from a flawless area of a much larger crystal.
Although datable crystal bottles are few and far between, there can be little doubt that plain crystal bottles would have become a staple of snuff-bottle production from very early in the history of the art form. Crystal had been carved in China for three millennia before the Qing dynasty, so it is inconceivable that it would not have been used for snuff bottles at the same time as other hardstones such as jade and chalcedony. By the mid-eighteenth century they appear to have become a staple of snuff-bottle production with widespread demand being met in various parts of the empire, much of it from locally mined stone. In Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, (p. 58) there is a reference to the rock crystal from Wuzhishan, in Qiongzhou (misprinted Qingzhou in Treasury 2), remote Hainan Island, describing it as 'brilliant, lustrous and white as snow.' While we may be certain that fine quality crystal bottles were being made prior to 1722, it is also worth noting that very well made examples were probably still being made at the end of the Qing dynasty for inside painted artists working in Beijing (See Treasury 4). Accordingly we have left a fairly extended possible date range for this bottle, although we believe that it is probably a product of the mid-Qing period, from about 17501850.
There was something about crystal that caught the imagination of the snuff-taking and bottle-buying public. Some of these qualities are obvious: glass-like stone, flawless and as hard as jade; cool to the touch and unyielding even to steel; mystic essence of incorruptible nothingness drawn pure from deep within the earth. The magical appeal of this combination to a culture with the deepest respect for nature and a highly developed symbolic language is not difficult to imagine. There was possibly, however, an equally powerful reason for the popularity of plain crystal, or indeed plain glass bottles, which our modern perspective as collectors of snuff bottles, rather than takers of snuff, tends to eclipse. Connoisseurship of the snuff itself was highly refined amongst the snuff-taking elite. Steeped in a culture where connoisseurship was an ingrained aspect of education and a natural hobby among the influential minority, there evolved an esoteric connoisseurship of snuff. Different colours and qualities of snuff were exquisitely graded and evaluated as fine vintages of wine are in the West. With a flawless, clear bottle, some of these qualities could be perceived, colour certainly, probably grade. The knowing eye would recognize a rare and expensive snuff through the walls of the bottle and rejoice in the companionship of arcane souls in which connoisseurship revels.
Whatever the reasons, plain crystal bottles were valued. We know this, not from their numbers alone but from the exquisite workmanship which was expended on this material as a matter of course. It is often an indication of the value a culture places on a particular material if it is generally treated with respect, finding its way into the hands best suited to work it. Where a particular material is usually associated with high standards of both technique and art, it suggests that it was a valued material not to be wasted on second-rate craftsmanship. A piece of absolutely pure crystal, such as this, seldom seems to have found its way into the hands of anyone with less than complete technical control of the medium and they are frequently also artistically inspired.
Formally this bottle is a faultless sculptural statement. It resounds with confidence. It is a form to be reckoned with. Like so much else in art that is truly memorable it is also pared of any unnecessary frills. The conception is as pure as the material.
Other bottles of similar quality and within the same range of compressed or flattened spheres attest to the popularity of this satisfying shape (see, for instance, Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, nos. 9294, and for one of almost identical form to this example, Lawrence 1996, no. 41 and another of similar form, no. 42). For another spectacular brown crystal bottle, again of this general form and quality, see Friedman 1990, no. 42.
The stopper is made of glass and is obviously early, although its coral collar is a new addition. The glass is crizzled at the surface in the manner typical of a great deal of glass produced in the palace glassworks early in its production history. Although this phenomenon lasted into the Qianlong reign with colourless glass in particular, crizzling of blue glass seems to have been mainly a problem of the Kangxi and Yongzheng periods. Although the existence of an old stopper on this bottle is of no help in dating it, since it is known to be a very recent addition to this particular bottle, it is a rarity in its own right. Early glass stoppers are uncommon and with its archaic design, and courtly crizzling, it is among the most convincingly early examples known. Another stopper of the same material and design is also in the collection, on Treasury 2, no. 363, but without the crizzling. It is carved with more shallow relief, however, and may be from a different batch of glass with a better balance of constituents.