Bowenite, possibly of pebble material, probably with artificial colour; well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed, flat oval foot surrounded by a protruding, rounded footrim 17401850 Height: 6.82 cm Mouth/lip: 0.62/2.34 cm Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar
Condition: some natural wear from handling, with some slight scratching visible to the naked eye; none of it obtrusive; otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Raymond Li (Hong Kong, 1978) Belfort Collection (1986)
Published: Hong Kong 1977, no. 140 Jutheau 1980, p. 115, fig. 1 Treasury 3, no. 385
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, OctoberNovember, 1977 L'Arcade Chaumet, Paris, June 1982 Christie's, London, 1999
Commentary: The large serpentine family of stones can be broadly divided into two. One is a relatively hard, massive variety known as bowenite, and the other, sometimes known as serpentine marble, occurs as a softer rock mass mixed with other minerals. Serpentine is a soft material, about 2 on the Mohs scale, except in bowenite which can be as hard as 4 or even more. The presence of other minerals can affect this hardness, so that under certain circumstances a particularly hard piece of bowenite may be close to the softer end of the nephrite range of hardness. Certain varieties of serpentine can closely resemble nephrite, and with euphemistic names such as 'new jade' or 'pseudo-jade', serpentine has been used as a substitute for jade for some time. As a rule, however, a good steel blade will reveal the difference, marking the serpentine range without too much difficulty, but not nephrite. The visual similarity of certain varieties of serpentine, and particularly of bowenite, to nephrite is well illustrated, however, in this particular bottle which, on its two previous published outings was catalogued as jade.
Serpentine is one of the rarer stones for Chinese snuff bottles but this impression may be partly due to the same syndrome that makes soapstone snuff bottles rare; when a material is fragile and soft, bottles made from it probably have an unusually high mortality rate. Stevens 1976 notes, quite correctly, that early serpentine bottles are rare, but gives the impression that it was quite a common material for late nineteenth- and twentieth-century snuff bottles. This may be misleading; neither early nor late serpentine bottles are common, and there are probably as many fine early serpentine bottles known as late ones.
One of the varieties of serpentine that is found in early snuff bottles is of a yellowish-green colour, translucent but rather soapy looking, a lovely material that would have been highly valued by the Chinese aesthete, trained as he was on a similar range of stones from Fujian province and elsewhere that form the soapstone group. Two of the most spectacular of these yellow serpentine snuff bottles are illustrated in Perry 1960, no. 93, and Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 76. In the same work, nos. 77 and 78 are two further examples resembling black jade.
The piece of material here is unique for the snuff bottle world and appears to have been achieved partially through the use of artificial colouring. It may have been of pebble material to start with, i.e., with a naturally weathered surface that has subsequently been enhanced by staining. The skin resembles an orange peel, or leather. Variations in colour, texture, and hardness are not unusual in the serpentine range because of its possible mixture with other minerals, and here an intriguing surface phenomenon has been used to great effect. Well smoothed all over and, together with its probable staining, it has the appearance of a spectacular piece of ancient pebble nephrite. That the surface cannot be entirely natural is suggested by the fact that what appears to be the weathered surface patination around the neck is no different from the patination around the main body. It would be impossible to find a pebble that was precisely snuff-bottle shaped, particularly with so symmetrical a form as this. Whatever process was used to achieve this lovely result, it is extraordinarily effective, and its resemblance to an ancient pebble of jade is so convincing that it has gone through the past twenty years classified as such. There can be no doubt that the more attractive varieties of serpentine were valued in their own right by the Chinese lapidary and his snuff-taking patrons. Most of the early examples are extremely well made and of commanding aesthetic merit, which is always a good sign that a material was valued.
This bottle is of perfect formal integrity, with excellent detailing, a neat flat foot and a well-formed footrim, and its ample proportions are convincingly formed. The slight waisting of the neck is an elegant touch that brings lightness to an otherwise fairly standard and rather chubby form, although with or without the waisted neck, a supremely satisfying one.