1730-1880 Sold with accompanying watercolour by Peter Suart 4.6cm high.
Treasury 3, no.418
A turquoise matrix snuff bottle
Turquoise matrix; reasonably well hollowed and of natural pebble form 17301880 Height: 4.6 cm Mouth: 0.6 cm Stopper: coral, carved as a twig; gilt-silver collar Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart
Condition: workshop condition
Provenance: Robert Hall (1987)
Published: Hall 1987, no. 83 Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 244 Treasury 3, no. 418
Exhibited: Robert Hall, London, October 1987 Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995
Turquoise is a crypto-crystalline aggregate with crystals so fine that the stone is considered practically amorphous. Although the composition varies, it is a hydrous copper aluminium phosphate with some iron. Its hardness on the Mohs scale is slightly less than 6, allowing it to be scratched with firm pressure and a good steel point, although in the snuff-bottle world turquoise is unlike any other material and is never convincingly imitated by anything else, so a test is never necessary. The only fake turquoise we have seen is a rather unconvincingly stained soapstone used late in the Qing and into the twentieth century; it lacks the distinctive black veining of turquoise matrix, nearly always found to some extent in the snuff-bottle world, although see Treasury 2, nos. 423 and 424 for material remarkably free of darker veining, and JICSBS, September 1977, p. 17, nos. 2327 for bottles made in the 1950s and 1960s which are of such flawless material that they have been considered fakes. The veined matrix material in which turquoise is found, incidentally, is limonite (see Sale 2, lot 15). The stone occurs mainly in veins but can be found in botryoidal form, i.e., pebble-form resembling a cluster of grapes. It is found in a number of places around the world, including Persia, the Sinai Peninsula and Russia. It appears to have been mined in Tibet, where it is one of the most valued stones in the culture, although because of its value the exact whereabouts of the mines has long been shrouded in mystery. Marco Polo spoke of the existence of turquoise in what he called Caindu, which has been identified as modern-day Sichuan province, then largely inhabited by Tibetan tribes, so it is possible that the Tibetans simply used the stone there and gave the impression it was mined locally. It was mined in China, in Zhushan County, Yunxi County, and Yun County in Hubei province, but this is documented only for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Xinjiang, old exhausted turquoise mines still exist in Hami, which was the first Turkic oasis to ask to be a protectorate of the Qing (in 1697). Until the war with the Zunghars, trade between Hami and Beijing flourished, and after the extermination of the Zunghars in 1759, Hami was one of the areas of the vanquished empire in which the Qing were able to have a significant military and civilian presence (which was not the case in the nephrite-producing areas about 1800 km further west) .Whether turquoise was part of the tribute that would have resumed is unknown. In any case, imports by sea must have been significant.
Most turquoise snuff bottles are of a distinctly green colour that is attributable to the absorption of oils from the hand with much use, and certainly turquoise is susceptible to this, but it is also true that some turquoise is bluer than others, Persian material, notably, and some from North America. The Tibetan and Chinese material was found originally both as green and blue, and much of what was used in the snuff-bottle world would have started life as green material. To the Qing Chinese, the stone was known as lüsongshi ('green pine stone'), whether green or blue, suggesting that green was the more common colour, but according to the General Gazetteer of Hubei, pale blue was held to be the most valuable colour. Another indication that the two colours were equally used, and to some extent equally valued, is found in the number of porcelain copies of the material where some copy blue and some green material. This is good evidence, since enamels on porcelain do not discolour through handling, as the real material would.
For others of the small and always impressive group of early natural pebble-form turquoise bottles, see Sydney L. Moss Ltd 1965, no. 96; Curtis 1982, no. 36; Moss 1977, p. 11, no. 7; Sotheby's, New York, 6 April 1990, lot 179, and Sotheby's, New York, 22 September 1995, lot 197.