Snuff Bottles: What are they and why collect them?
By I.M. Chait –
In the very early 18th Century (although some people might insist it was the late 17th Century), snuff, as a recreational habit, was introduced by Europeans to the Court of China. While we all may have our opinions relative to the evils of tobacco, no one can ignore the fact that European snuff boxes, made for the wealthy class, are some of the most beautiful miniature objects created. Executed in gold, enamels, often jeweled and diamond encrusted, depending on the wealth of the royal using it, snuff boxes are precious jewels in their own right.
Now, the Chinese took to snuff as a Peking duck takes to the oven (just kidding). You might say that at the time, snorting little dabs of tobacco and sneezing was ever increasingly popular among the wealthy-class in China. Now, we all know that the Chinese would be very unhappy to be outdone by the Europeans. Therefore, members of the royal court and other wealthy individuals, having already at their disposal what might be referred to as Palace Workshops, started the creation of their own version of containers for snuff.
These containers were actually more efficient than European snuff bottles. They were small. They were what you might call today ergonomically-shaped. The tops were secured by cork so that they didn’t accidentally open while being carried in a sleeve, and no moisture could get in. They also had attached to the top and cork an ivory spoon, with which to reach in and extract the ground tobacco. They were executed in porcelain, enamels on metal, lacquer, glass and a myriad of organic and inorganic materials including, of course, jade.
Formed in metal or ceramic, the bottles could be created hollow in order to hold the tobacco. Carved out of stones such as agate or jade, the bottles needed to be hollowed out in the interior. This was a technique already developed for larger jade and agate pieces, but the technology for doing this in miniature, as most snuff bottles rarely exceed 3 inches, was a proficiency quickly developed in the workshops. In fact, some bottles created in translucent agates were paper thin, and sometimes, a test of the carver’s skill in creating these bottles was to see if he could create some that were so thin that when immersed in water, they would actually float. Another test was to see how small the opening could be for the spoon.
The decorations on these bottles, of course, could vary tremendously, with porcelain being decorated under and over the glaze, many times with exquisite enamel detailing. The enamel detailing on metal bottles could be done over copper or sometimes even over gold, again with exquisite detailing. The same exquisite enameling could also be applied to glass or the glass could be carved using various colorations, in the styles that agate and jade might have been fashioned.
Sometimes, these bottles bore marks attributing them to certain dynastic periods, specific carvers or specific workshops. Nowadays, when these bottles from the 18th Century appear and the bottles themselves are what we might call “palace quality,” they easily bring tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars per bottle.
What about the tops of these snuff bottles? Many times, the top is made of the same material as the bottle itself, but the tops can be almost any material: glass, agate, jade, metal, shell, ivory, etc. Many times, the tops are chosen to compliment rather than match exactly the snuff bottle or its decoration, and sometimes the tops are so exquisite that they themselves have become scarce commodities. For example, not long ago, we sold an intricately-carved white jade snuff bottle top for nearly $1,000. Many years ago, I repurposed an emerald green jadeite snuff bottle top and made it into a man’s ring, which today would probably sell for at least $50,000.
So what happened after the 18th Century? By the time we get into the 19th Century, snuff is out of or going out of fashion, and bottles are being collected as objects rather than functional containers. Of course, production never ceases, and in fact, it only increases, as does the demand. By the time of the latter 19th Century, workshops have opened that can paint fantastic scenes on the interiors of clear glass snuff bottles. Also around this time, the West has discovered snuff bottles as an art object. Well into modern times, more and more bottles are being created, and more and more bottles are being collected.
As with all miniaturized art forms, value and the ability to be stored easily play an important part in the collecting of snuff bottles. Another facet of collecting snuff bottles concerns itself with the fascination of Western collectors with the Chinese ability to emphasize detail of design so strongly that it can captivate the eye of the beholder. I must also point out that in the early 20th Century, workshops in Japan, also well known for their ability to exquisitely detail, are producing snuff bottles in carved and lacquered ivories, cloisonné and other media for collectors in Asia and abroad.
Needless to say, there are a lot of snuff bottles available to be purchased. Many can be bought for under $100. Many can be bought for under $1,000. Good antique bottles can be bought for under $10,000, and it seems there is no limit to the prices being paid for the best bottles in the world. Recently, one sold for over a million dollars.