Late in the 18th century, the export of silver from China to the West began to rival the tremendous export industry of Chinese porcelain. With an influx of trade between China and the West, as well as tourists flooding the region, the demand for these one-of-a-kind silver pieces increased exponentially. By the early 1800s, Chinese silversmiths were producing a range of traditionally Western tableware, including flatware, teapots, frames, and vases.
East Meets West
Crafted for the homes of a Western clientele, but adorned with distinctively Asian decorative motifs, these pieces reflect a fascinating cultural exchange between the East and West. Chinese silversmiths tailored their wares specifically to the expectations of their Western clientele, sometimes even copying English hallmarks. This is most often seen in the earliest examples of Chinese export silver, when silversmiths attempted to copy Western forms exactly. Yet, traditional Western motifs such as grapes and fluted columns were replaced with more Asian-inspired imagery - birds, bamboo, landscapes, and even dragons.
This marriage of Chinese motifs and classical form proved a successful endeavor for Chinese silversmiths, whose export wares would remain popular for nearly two centuries. The most common Chinese motifs leant wares an air of the exotic, both for their unfamiliar forms and their rich symbolism.
Perhaps the most dramatic of Chinese motifs seen in export silver is the dragon. A symbol of strength and dignity, the dragon is at the top of the hierarchy of Chinese animals, and is thus also the symbol of the emperor.
Bamboo is renowned for being versatile - to this day it is used for everything from furniture to flatware. Never losing its leaves, it symbolizes longevity and endurance, as well as integrity, as it will bend in the wind but will not break.
The chrysanthemum is seen often as a motif in silver, primarily because it is a flower that is not very feminine. Thought to resemble the sun, it signifies longevity of life and brings good luck to one’s home.
In Chinese mythology, it was said that cranes could live up to a thousand years. Thus, they have long been associated with both immortality and longevity. The graceful, long-legged birds possess an elegance that lends itself well to silver pieces, particularly candlesticks and frames.
Crafted to Perfection
Masterfully executed by Chinese silversmiths, these elaborate decorative motifs were crafted by hand with a stunning virtuosity. The finest examples found on the market today are reflective of the remarkable skill of the silversmith, who would have mastered techniques from casting to engraving. Goblets, tea services, flatware, bowls, vases, dishes - all of these one-of-a-kind creations were highly sought after by Westerners of their age, just as they are today.
To view the collection of Chinese Export Silver at M.S. Rau Antiques, click here.