From the August/September 2014 Issue:

Up to Snuff

    By: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

Chinese snuff bottles appeal to collectors for all sorts of reasons

Article Photo
enlarge | Paris dealer Galerie Bertrand de Lavergne, another Chinese snuff bottle specialist, offered this carved jade snuff bottle at the Brussels Antiques and Fine Art Fair in January. Playful monkeys were a popular motif for snuff bottles. The monkey is a sign in the Chinese zodiac, known for being charming and fun-loving if a bit restless and unreliable. Photo courtesy of Galerie Bertrand de Lavergne
In the booth of London-based dealer Robert Hall at the European Fine Art and Antiques Fair earlier this year, the showcases were filled with Chinese snuff bottles from the 18th and 19th centuries. More than a hundred examples, each just two to three inches tall and decorated in minute detail. Glass, porcelain, carved stone, amber... “They’re miniature examples of every aspect of Chinese decorative art,” says Gemma Hall, the dealer’s representative.

If you’re susceptible to collecting, Chinese snuff bottles are just the sort of thing to trigger that impulse. They are beautiful, they have an interesting history, each is unique and there are so many of them! You’ll never run out of examples to collect or prizes to pursue.

Article Photo
enlarge | The front of this finely detailed, inside-painted snuff bottle from 1899 depicts Chinese opera star Tan Xinpei in the role of General Huang Zhong. The inscription on the back reads: “Old veterans tell of Huang Zhong, who achieved great deeds in his conquest of Sichuan. On his back he draped golden chain mail, in his hand, he held a cast iron bow. His bravery astounded the north. And his fame subdued the south.” It is signed and dated by the artist and was offered for sale by Robert Hall at this year’s European Fine Art and Antiques Fair. Photo courtesy of Robert Hall
A Pinch of History
Tobacco arrived in China in the late 1500s via Europeans who learned about it from Native Americans. Once people overcame their initial bewilderment (You light it and inhale the smoke? Why?), tobacco caught on, and that caused problems. Even a warning from the great philosopher-scientist Fang Yizhi that smoking “scorches one’s lung” didn’t stop China’s craving for tobacco. So in 1639 when the Chongzhen emperor of the Ming Dynasty heard some farmers were growing tobacco instead of food crops, he banned it altogether, declaring that “addicts” who were caught smoking would be executed. The ban lasted just three years.

By the time of the Kangxi emperor of the Qing dynasty, who reigned from 1662 to 1722, smoking tobacco was banned in China once again. In Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550 to 2010, historian Carol Ann Benedict writes that the emperor could not abide the smell of tobacco smoke. He did, however, develop an appreciation for “nose tobacco” thanks to emissaries from Europe who arrived in China bearing diplomatic gifts of amostrinha snuff, made in Portugal from Brazilian tobacco.

In turn, it became customary for the Kangxi emperor to present gifts of snuff in beautifully crafted bottles to high-ranking officials, notable citizens and foreign dignitaries. The tradition continued and expanded under the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors who followed him. “In 1755 the imperial workshops provided Qianlong with five hundred glass snuff bottles to be used as gifts,” Benedict writes.

“What Lovely Things they Are!”
Because the emperors liked snuff, the upper classes of society grew to like it also; and eventually the general populace adopted the habit. Not only was snuff considered fashionable, it was believed to improve one’s eyesight and to help fight off colds and disease. People carried snuff with them and offered a pinch to friends they met on the street. Unusual and finely crafted snuff bottles became status symbols.

Glass was a favorite material for early snuff bottles because it could be produced in a wide variety of colors and shapes. “The white is clear as crystal, the red like fire. What lovely things they are!” wrote Wang Shizhen, a Chinese government official, in 1702. “The spoon is made of ivory, used to extract the snuff out of the bottle to be inhaled.”

Sometimes the glass was blown or molded, other times it was made in a block and then carved like stone. Some of the prettiest examples are made of opaque white glass overlaid with carved red or blue glass. Others look like faceted jewels, a Bohemian glassmaking style introduced to China by Jesuit missionaries from Europe.

In an entirely separate category are the “inside-painted” glass bottles that became popular in the mid-to-late-19th century. To make these remarkable objects, the inside of the bottle was coated with an etching solution that created a surface on which paint and ink would adhere. Artists inserted long, thin wood pens through the neck of the bottle to paint the motifs and the calligraphy—which was written backward on the inside. Because regular use would have damaged the artwork, these bottles were primarily decorative. Their designs often illustrate passages from books or historical texts.

Jade was another favorite material for snuff bottles, as were quartz, agate and semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite and turquoise. Natural substances including amber, coral, ivory, gourd and even bamboo were used also. And then, of course, there was porcelain.

While bottles made from rare or precious materials were produced for the upper class, Chinese blue and white porcelain bottles were typically manufactured for ordinary consumers. They’re still widely available from dealers, at auction and in collectors’ circles. Gemma Hall says they’re a good point of entry for new collectors, noting that prices for Chinese antique snuff bottles can range from $500 into the millions depending (as all prices do) on quality, rarity and provenance.

“What people collect really is based on personal preference,” she adds. “We have clients who collect only carved jade. Others collect only items decorated with dragons, or fish or birds.”

So many beautiful objects; so many different examples. Collecting them could be habit-forming!

Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous and Totally Off the Wall Facts. She writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.

For More Information
London-based dealer Robert Hall ( specializes in Chinese snuff bottles. The firm’s website has excellent information for collectors.

The International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society ( is a Maryland-based organization that publishes a scholarly journal for collectors and hosts an annual convention.