Once condemned as feudalistic, fine old Chinese silver is now appreciated as art. Wang Jie digs deep for the story.
Silver was once rare, tougher to extract and more precious than gold in China, where skilled silversmiths used the material to make distinctive jewelry, good-luck charms, ornaments and fine silverware.
Though it doesn’t glitter like gold, silver has a special luster and patina and because it’s malleable, it is easily shaped and carved. Silver objects and jewelry are frequently mentioned in novels about old China.
During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), silver was singled out as a representative for the feudal indulgence of the upper classes and sometimes was confiscated and melted.
The use of silver dates back over 3,000 years to the Zhou Dynasty (circa 11th century-256 BC) and because it was rare, silver was often melted to create new works as tastes changed.
History shows that silver was first used for ornamentation before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), and was used to make utensils in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Today it’s difficult to find fine old pieces of silversmith work, but they are prized by collectors and experts on silver art and jewelry.
Hu Jianjun, 38, associate professor at Shanghai University’s Academy of Fine Arts, has been collecting and researching old silver since 2000, when she fell in love with silverwork after seeing some fine examples at an antique shop. She was invited to lecture last year on appreciation of old silver at the China Art Museum in Shanghai.
“I was not prepared for so many listeners,” Hu says, surprised that several hundred people showed up.
“Maybe we all share a special feeling toward old Chinese silver, which used to be common in many families in the old days in the country.”
Hu focuses on pre-1949 silver, worked into dinnerware, jewelry and ornaments. Some are finely wrought and fashioned with fine enamel work and gemstones.
“I fell in love with this old silverware,” she says, “because behind each piece, there is a story that I am unable to know about its former owners. They remind me of a bygone era, a time that I am especially longing for.
“In my eyes, today’s society is filled with desire and lust, but I find the rare elegance and spirit of the old times through this silverware,” she adds.
Hu has collected nearly 600 pieces of old silverwork purchased from antique markets or private art dealers.
They include jewelry boxes, clasps, rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, charms and various ornaments.
“Look at the design of some silver made in the Tang Dynasty. Even today, they appear very modern, I am amazed at the aesthetic taste of our predecessors,” she notes.
Hu holds a silverfish charm about the size of two fingers, which contains a folded mini-comb that can be used by both women and men. Men would use it for their beard and mustache.
“But if you go looking for real old silver today at antique markets, the chance of finding quality pieces is nearly nil,” she says. “In ancient times, silver was not abundant and craftsmen would melt the work of earlier dynasties and fashion new works.”
Another reason for scarcity was the change in women’s hairstyles and dress. At the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), many urban women cut their hair short, so they didn’t need hair clasps or elaborate silver pins with dangling ornaments. Silver went out of fashion.
A major blow to silver artistry was the “cultural revolution.”
“Old silver represented decadence of the old society,” she says. “Once an old craftsman told me that buckets and buckets of old silver ornaments were melted into ingots during that time because the old silverware represented a feudal period. All that superb carving technique, creative design and intricate patterns were gone in the fire.”
Many Chinese people were unaware of the significance of the loss of old silver art, compared with the loss of other antiques and antiquities in that period.
Beginning in the 1980s, it was common for urban Chinese families to exchange the old silver that remained, sometimes valuable heirlooms, for gold jewelry, representing “a new lifestyle in a new epoch,” she says.
Each dynasty had its distinctive patterns, skills and favored objects. For example, a “longevity lock” talisman during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties was often used to bless a newborn. They typically bore pattern of bats, lotus and clouds.
“Due to the rarity of old Chinese silver pieces in the market, the price has rocketed in recent years,” Hu says, adding that some people collect them as an investment rather than for art appreciation. It is not uncommon for quality silver pieces to fetch dozens of thousands of yuan.
Chinese silver made for export between the 18th and 20th centuries also can be expensive, expert appraiser Stuart Slavid of Skinner Inc, based in the US state of Massachusetts, told Antiques Roadshow last year. Slavid said a nice Chinese silver tea set can cost a few thousand US dollars and a one-of-a-kind trophy piece can fetch US$10,000 to US$25,000. Yet, Slavid said collectors on the lookout can find small decorative cabinet pieces for under US$500.
Hu says that because she was born in the Year of the Rabbit, she hunts all kinds of old silverware with the image of rabbits.
“I developed a certain web of people that collect and sell old silverware,” she says, smiling.
“They know that sometimes I bargain with them over price, but when it comes to the rabbit pattern, they all know that I won’t have a moment of hesitation. I am always too generous when it comes to them. It might be difficult to describe my feelings in words, I just think that these old silverware rabbits belong to me, and they would find me sooner or later.”
Hu says she spends more than she should on collecting old silverware.
“I am not a rich business person, and I haven’t sold a single piece of them,” she says.
“They are the witness of old times and old people, and they are part of my life. I regret of not being born in that time, but I could pretend to be there when I am with this silverware,” Hu adds.
(Source: Shanghai Daily)