Tourmaline; well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed, flat foot surrounded by a protruding, rounded footrim; carved on one main side with a squirrel on a fruiting grape vine and on each narrow side with a flying bat holding a tassled cord in its mouth Probably imperial, 17601830 Height: 4.82 cm Mouth/lip: 0.6/2 and 1.9 cm (oval) Stopper: tourmaline; silver collar
Condition: Original material: suffused with icy flaws, line flaws, and one darker more opaque area just beneath the neck on the front of the two main sides; flaws in material have left some random small indentations on the lip; one tiny chip in centre of footrim, polished since but not removed completely, not obtrusive. General relative condition: excellent
Provenance: Harriet Hamilton Chimiles Collection Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1997)
Published: Hamilton 1977, p. 56, no. S53 Treasury 3, no. 407
Commentary One of the great mysteries of the snuff-bottle world is the whereabouts of early tourmaline bottles. Tourmaline was a popular material, readily available, and valued at court, where it was extensively used for jewellery. It was also, of course, one of the most popular materials for snuff-bottle stoppers. There can be no doubt that the mid-Qing period saw the production of a range of tourmaline snuff bottles for the court and yet, until recently, very few tourmalines were ever considered to have been made any earlier than the late Qing or Republican periods. The search was on for any tourmaline bottle that related stylistically, formally or by subject matter to known works of the late eighteenth century, with a particularly keen eye ready to spot known palace workshops style of the period. Sure enough, some were found, as listed under Treasury 3, no. 407, to which we can add one in the National Museum of History in Taiwan, a peach-shaped pink tourmaline snuff bottle ascribed to the Qing dynasty.
This is one of the most impressive of the obvious candidates for a late-eighteenth-century imperial provenance. We can be certain it is early, although we have allowed the possibility with an unmarked bottle that anything made during the latter part of the Qianlong period might be indistinguishable from an early nineteenth-century counterpart carrying on the same tradition, possibly even with the same artisans in some cases. The subject matter is suitably Qianlong and imperial, with a generally auspicious subject, making the bottle an appropriate gift either to or from the court. The squirrel on a grape vine is a symbol of ample and appears on a number of probably imperial bottles of the Qianlong period. Apart from a range of wares made from pink tourmaline, there seems also to have been a fashion for using two-coloured tourmaline at this time for carvings, whether snuff bottles or other items. One common colour combination was green and pink, known as 'watermelon tourmaline'. This example is of two colours, although of a more subtle variation than the green-and-pink variety.
Formally the bottle is appropriate for the eighteenth century and the court. It is unusually well hollowed for a precious stone, the interior profile matching the exterior perfectly, although the walls have been left thick enough to retain ample colour, the lip is concave, and the well-carved, recessed foot is flat. It is also extremely well carved in fully rounded relief and of the range of quality one finds on imperial jade and agate carving of the period, although the quality of the carving is apparent only under close observation because of the strong striations in the material.
Tourmaline is a complex silicate of boron and aluminum, sometimes in combination with magnesium, iron, or the alkali metals. It is known in a wide range of colours besides pink and green and it commonly includes more than one colour in a single crystal. It has a hardness of between 7 and 7.5 on the Mohs scale and is a fairly widespread mineral. Sources for the Chinese lapidary would have been Sri Lanka, Siberia, and Burma, Yunnan being the local commercial centre for Burmese and Sri Lankan stones. The name tourmaline is derived from the Sri Lankan turamali. During the early twentieth century, it is believed that material from California was also imported. Tourmaline was apparently available to the Chinese throughout the snuff-bottle period and probably before, although it did not come into prominence until adopted for court jewellery, small pendants, and snuff bottles, apparently during the Qing dynasty. It is another of the materials, however, that may have come into greater prominence after the conquest of Turkestan in 1759. The Xinjiang region provides several colours of tourmaline, including the distinctive pink-and-green variety. This would accord with the known carvings in the material.