A nephrite pebble-material 'leather-pouch' snuff bottle
1720-1860 5.2cm high.
Treasury 1, no. 11
Nephrite of pebble material; well hollowed, with a flat base 17201860 Height: 5.2 cm Mouth/lip: 0.86/2.00 cm Stopper: jadeite with artificial colour; gilt-bronze collar Condition: Original material: irregular flaw running across one edge of the foot and into the narrow sides; not obtrusive. General relative condition: workshop condition
Exhibited: British Museum, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1997
Commentary: This bottle reveals a great deal about the nature of pebble material. It is of the type of nephrite known to Zhao Zhiqian as 'yellow steamed chestnut' (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 1) but it has an unusual depth of skin material intact and cut through in a revealing cross-section. From this the anatomy of the pebble material is clearly seen. Pebbles and boulders of nephrite were nearly always of irregular form, but smoothed and rounded in the rushing waters, being rolled against each other along the river bed with every annual swelling of the rivers by melting snow (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 1). Gradually the original colour of the pebble, formed deep in the earth and broken free at the surface by geological activity over an immense span of time, would be transformed at the surface. This was not simply a process of chemical staining by the elements; it was a physical metamorphosis of the surface of the stone in contact with them. By this immensely slow process random chips or chunks of material would be smoothed, rounded at the edges and surrounded by a 'skin' of metamorphosed material, usually of a brownish or blackish colour. This pebble was obviously of flattened form, with a wedge-shaped end, as revealed by the distinct and sharp 'V'-shape of the skin material where it meets the inner colour of the stone, visible at the narrow sides. Because of this clear cross-section of the skin material on both sides of the bottle we can see the variation in texture and colour of the skin from its outer to its inner layers. The outer layer is of a darker brown colour which becomes gradually paler as it gets closer to the original colour of the interior of the pebble. Where they meet, the paler colour is clearly striated, with dendritic lines of colour seeping still further into the yellowish-green of the stone, showing the process of the gradual thickening of the skin as it seeps century by century further into the original colour of the material. This also explains how the extraordinary bottle in the J & J Collection, which seems to be entirely skin, was formed (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 46). It must be a pebble that had been exposed to so much weathering that the skin metamorphosis came to permeate the entire stone, or at least enough of it to allow a snuff bottle to be made of solid skin colour. This example was heading in that direction when its progress was, presumably, frozen in time by the lapidary, but the concept of 'heading in that direction' for a nephrite pebble must be viewed on a rather more cosmic scale than the human one.
The use of this delightful and revealing pebble is inspired. With almost faultless symmetry, the carver has managed to place the body of the bottle perfectly within the skin so that the neck and two 'V'-shaped shoulder panels are of yellowish-green colour standing in stark contrast to the skin material which covers the rest of the bottle. The impression is of a bottle contained within a separate casing, of leather perhaps, creating the same illusion as a basket-weave bottle where the neck emerges as a bottle shape as if the vessel were contained in a protective casing ( see Treasury 1, no. 149, for instance). The formal integrity, lovely shape, soft polish, and impeccable hollowing all speak volumes for the genius of the carver and, although undecorated, this becomes through this simple, faultless use of the fascinating material, one of the great masterpieces of plain nephrite snuff bottles.
The stopper, not necessarily the ideal combination for such a softly-spoken and natural material but certainly a reasonable match, is jadeite of a distinctive kind found always in combination with gilt-bronze collars of this type. The interior of a piece of undistinguished jadeite is hollowed out to an overall thickness of perhaps a little more than a millimetre and then the inside is painted with emerald-green pigment. The impression is of jadeite of fine colour. This appears to be an early type of stopper made in one place only, and always to the same standards. One is also known simulating red jadeite.