An amethyst and brown crystal 'cicada' snuff bottle
Possibly Imperial, 17401850 5.7cm high.
Treasury 2, no. 247
The Tourmo-Charged Cicada
Crystal (amethyst and brown crystal) with inclusions of tourmaline; well hollowed and carved in the form of a cicada, the wings carved from the section containing the tourmaline crystals Possibly imperial, 17401850 Length: 5.7 cm Mouth: 0.49 cm Stopper: coral; malachite collar (changed from stopper illustrated in Treasury 2) Condition: Good workshop condition
Exhibited: British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
Commentary: Among the forms taken from living creatures, the cicada was one of the most popular, not just in snuff bottles, but in the culture as a whole, having been a symbol of rebirth since the second millennium BC. It was a common motif on ancient bronzes and a standard form in jade as one of the body-plugs for closing the nine orifices of the body at burial; it survived into the post-archaic period both in the form of independent sculptures and as decorative motifs on a wide range of arts. It may also have been popular as a snuff-bottle form because among symbolically powerful creatures it was amongst the most suited to the shape of a snuff bottle. By stylizing the wings, shortening them a little to coincide with the end of the body, it became an ideal, compact form close to the functional and efficient compressed oval that appears so often in bottles. Consequently, it is found quite frequently in nephrite, in quartz and other stones, in porcelain, and even in laque-burgauté (for references to other examples, see Treasury 1, no. 58, and Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 7; for a version in amethyst, see Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 28 October 1993, lot 114, from the Eric Young Collection).
The carving of this example follows very closely the style of Treasury 2, no. 343. It has a similarly realistic underside, reasonably stylized wings, a very formalized upper back and head and the same unusual and distinctive multiple bulges beneath the eyes. They can only have come from the same workshop.
What is extraordinary about this example is the material. As a specimen of quartz, it is unique in the snuff-bottle world. There are other examples of amethyst with inclusions of tourmaline, although extremely rare, but here they occur in a combination of brown and purple crystal, which is a rare mélange in its own right for the snuff bottle, even without the inclusions. Not only is the material unique, but it has been used very cleverly. The darker, brown crystal of the head slowly gives way to a distinct purple colour, or amethyst, in the lower abdomen. It is not a brilliant, obvious purple, but under good light it is unquestionably amethyst. The tourmaline inclusions, consisting of clusters of unusually short, black needles, are confined entirely to the wings, the thin layer bearing the crystals having been removed at the mesothorax between the wings.
The stopper here, while a nice match in material and form, is one of the few carved with a deliberate design where the artist's intention is not clear. It looks like a length of rope coiled into a cone-shape. It is unlike the Chinese to carve something that has no meaning whatsoever, and an abstract shape matched to something just because it looked nice would have been out of character. Perhaps it is a fragment broken from a larger carving and salvaged as a stopper. There are quite a few asymmetrical stoppers for animal-, fruit- and vegetable-form bottles that are salvaged, and even those for more regularly shaped necks are sometimes made out of old beads, cut in half and mounted on a collar.