Aquamarine; well but not extensively hollowed, with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding broad, flat footrim Probably imperial, 17601840 Height: 6.22 cm Mouth/lip: 0.55/2.00 cm Stopper: tourmaline
Condition: Some icy flaws to the inner wall; one side of the footrim polished back; a miniscule chip to the other side of the footrim; nothing too obtrusive
Provenance: Christie's, London, 12 October 1987, lot 312
Exhibited: British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
Commentary: This stunning aquamarine is the most impressive of a small group of similarly shaped bottles where a rounded rectangular form is left with relatively thick walls to retain the maximum depth of colour. They are all flawed to some extent, but this is the least flawed of all and of lovely colour that would not be unimpressive as jewellery. It is quite simply sumptuous.
For another very similar bottle, also of brilliant colour and the same shape which must have been from the same workshop, see Stevens 1976, no. 643. That bottle was in the collection of Hugh Moss until he traded it with Bob Stevens for a trip to Las Vegas while staying with him in 1963. Others are illustrated in Perry 1960, no. 94, and Hamilton 1977, p. 49, no. S2. One also finds these plain, rounded rectangular forms in green beryl, which differs only in colour from aquamarine, although they are usually slimmer. It is a characteristic feature of the aquamarines of this group that they are thicker-walled and more substantial, not only in this additional wall-thickness but in their size and depth as well, allowing for more intense colour, of course, but also greater presence. Perhaps the lovely pale blue of aquamarine was valued above the greener gem-like qualities of its sister stone, green beryl. For an example, see Hall 1991, no. 18, which in turn relates to lot 51 in the present auction and probably comes from the same workshop, although one is carved and one plain.
An aquamarine of similar form but carved with a highly imperial, palace design, now considered to be a work of the latter Qianlong period but catalogued at the time as being later than that, was exhibited at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1978 (Snuff Bottles of the Ch'ing Dynasty, no. 129). Re-dated to the late Qianlong period, this bottle is obviously the aquamarine equivalent of the imperial tourmalines cited under Treasury 3, no. 407. A plain aquamarine, but of an ovoid form with a flared neck, is in Ford 1982, no. 54.
Although all of the aquamarine bottles of this form have thick walls, the hollowing in the inner shoulders does not match the outer profile, leaving a fan-shaped area at the top. It is neatly done, but is probably a sign of declining standards in hollowing and may indicate a nineteenth-century rather than a late eighteenth-century date.
One can see the enormous appeal of precious gemstones with this bottle and regret that so few have survived from the snuff-bottle period, although they must have been made in larger quantities than the extant numbers suggest. It is possible, although unlikely, that many were cut up and re-made into other items.
The problem with early aquamarine bottles is that they tended to be confused with later production, although there is a larger number of aquamarine bottles that can be attributed to the mid-Qing period, and this collection is particularly rich in them. This form in nephrite, for instance, was apparently an imperial type of the Qianlong period, even if not exclusively, and there is no reason why its aquamarine equivalent should not be as well, although its form alone would be insufficient for more than a very tentative possible attribution. However, there is another, better reason to assume a higher probability here. Regardless of other sources, beryl, and its blue variety, aquamarine, were mined in the same region as nephrite, Turkestan, which was brought under Qing military control in 1759. Thereafter large quantities of stone suddenly became available and much was sent as tribute to the court. We can assume that the best specimens would have been retained for court use, and this is one of the finest known.
The appeal of the gemstone is equally found in the addition, so common with beryl and aquamarine, of a tourmaline stopper. The two stones are an ideal match for each other, and it is difficult to imagine a better stopper for this bottle, although it is perhaps strange that the compliment never seems to be returned by putting an aquamarine stopper on a tourmaline bottle.