Shagreen, wood, and black lacquer; with a flat lip and flat foot; the body of wood, the exterior covered in shagreen, the lip and interior lacquered black 17231820 Height: 6.36 cm Mouth/lip: 0.65/1.61 cm Stopper: mother-of-pearl; gilt-silver collar
Condition: Slight irregularities in the lip and at one point on the shoulder from the original manufacturing process; usual wear to the surface. General relative condition: excellent
Provenance: Alex S. Cussons Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1996)
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles, no. 2, p. 36, fig. 4 Snuff Bottle Review, Vol. II, no. 1, 1976, p. 51, fig. 9 JICSBS, December 1977, p. 30, fig. 63 Treasury 7, no. 1566
This remarkable bottle has always been identified as shagreen (called sharkskin among snuff-bottle collectors, but in fact a form of leather made mainly from the skin of one hundred or so species of the ray family, specially the stingray; see Pedersen 2004, p. 229). It has also been considered one of the few early bottles in the material, the mass of green or black shagreen bottles, rather crudely made, being products of the second half of the twentieth century. We have not been able to examine all the illustrated versions in this material, but certainly the spate of unpolished versions with rough skin, whether green or stained black, was produced mostly in the 1970s. One or two may be older, and these are polished in the usual manner for this material in antiquity, where the lumpy surface was ground down, cutting through to the white dentricles of the original skin to create a flat pattern, as we find herealthough the dentricles are unusually far apart for a ray.
As a rule, shagreen is of a greenish colour, but it can be dyed to other colours, including bright red, so a dyed black example is not out of the question. Shagreen has long been widely used by the Chinese for the scabbards and handles of swords and knives and for giving a strong, leathery, protective coating to a range of small containers. The tiny inner structure of dentricles that polishes down to a series of paler, transparent dots in the coloured matrix is unique to the shagreen-producing sea creatures, and no amount of coloured staining can disguise its distinctive appearance.
An intriguing entry in the Imperial archives is worth mentioning at this point, simply because it may, in a tenuous sort of way, throw some light on the dating and provenance of this bottle, or at least bottles made from skin and produced at the palace workshops. Among the revelations accompanying the publication of a selection of the Yongzheng palace workshops archives was an entry from the first year of the reign (1723) related to the workshop for dealing with miscellaneous items. It reads 'On the twenty-fourth day of the third month, Baode delivered one piece of heise (black, dark) ge for making a snuff bottle', and goes on to note that it was finished and presented on the eleventh day of the fourth month. (Yongzheng Records, p. 14) There is some question as to the precise identity of the material, since the critical character ge has more than one meaning. It can represent a general word for either lizards or bivalves; usually, it is used in combination with another character that removes the ambiguitya gebang is an oyster, a geyi is a lizard, and so forthbut the recorder of Baode's delivery to the workshop aimed for conciseness rather than precision. (To compound the confusion, the character ge can also be read ha, in which case it figures in the name for the toad.)
The skins of larger lizards from the tropics were often used as leather, and still are; it would be reasonable to take the 1723 record as a reference to a sheet of lizard skin to be used as we know shagreen was. But another possibility is that the material was shagreen and, because it had been dyed black, was not recognized as such by the low-level functionaries at the palace workshops who kept the records. The ambiguity with which they labelled it was perhaps not intentionally designed to frustrate scholars of later centuries but rather to disguise their own confusion.
We know that shagreen was used at court during the Yongzheng period, indeed for the emperor's use, since one pair of Imperial spectacles still in the Imperial collection with brown crystal lenses in a gilt-bronze frame remains in a shagreen case.