Snuff Bottle, Experiencing the Luxury


Chinese snuff bottles, as well as the tobacco powder contained by the Chinese snuff bottles were at the very core of a fashion whose popularity had never before been experienced in China’s extensive history.  Due to it’s exceptional versatility of style, technique and material, all in one small object, as well as the fine craftsmanship, these tiny masterpieces quickly became one of the most notable representations of the use of artistic skill throughout the Qing Dynasty.

Although legally, the smoking of tobacco was not permitted, its use as snuff was considered perfectly acceptable, as it was thought to have valuable medicinal applications.  Tobacco was thought to be a great way to treat colds, headaches, stomach disorders and many other symptoms and illnesses. Though snuff was originally only a luxury experienced by the elite of the new Qing Dynasty house, its popularity, along with the popularity of the snuff bottle, became much more available in and around the Beijing court by the close of the seventeenth century.

Snuff bottles are made of a wide variety of materials.  These include coral, ivory, jade, jadeite, mother of pearl, lapis lazuli, quartz, malachite, agate, turquoise as well as gold, silver and many more exotic materials.  Despite the number of exotic materials to chose from, glass remained the most popular substance to use and most surviving models are from this material.  Glass was treated much differently by the Chinese during this period than it is today.  The Chinese cut and polished it like a precious stone.  By mixing metal oxides, the subsequent glass could be turned into exquisite glass sculptures.  The glass for these works generally originated in Shantung although the cutting itself was done in Beijing.

The most charming and truly fascinating snuff bottles are those with paintings painted on the interior walls.  These were painted from the inside out through a technique that first painted the interior with iron oxydal mixed with water.  This created a milky white surface suitable to take the paints, which were applied subsequently.  Snuff bottles of this genre include landscapes, flower pieces and other works.  These were created in a day or less of painstakingly intricate brushwork and are truly works of art.  The earliest examples of these date from the 1880s so this form was a relatively late development.