Chinese Jewelry, Exports, Dating and Marks
I love oriental jewelry and I can’t get enough of it. I collect Japanese netsuke and Chinese jewelry. I am sure my adoration comes from being part Japanese and growing up in Hawaii which has a large oriental population. There is so much confusion with Chinese jewelry that I have personally embarked on a mission to learn as much about it and the ways you can determine the age of a piece of adornment. This post is a work in progress and I hope you find my discoveries and information helpful to you. Please note that I am not an expert and there always seem to be exceptions to the rules of marking and dating of Chinese jewelry. So please do not consider this a bible. It is just a great way for me to get my thoughts out there and update as new information is revealed or shared with me. I still have much to learn!
The relationship between China and silver is rather interesting. China used silver as its trade standard until 1935. Antique and vintage adornments were usually made from silver. The use of gold was very rare. The Chinese word for silver is “Yin”. The word for bank is “Yinhang”. That is how integral silver was to the Chinese economy and trade.
There are a few terms used to describe Chinese jewelry. Antique, Chinese Export Silver, Chinese Export Jewelry (early and late/new), and contemporary. This is what I personally use to differentiate between the eras. This may differ from what others use so I do not recommend you treat this as gospel.
Antique = 100 years or older
Chinese Export Silver (1785-1940)= This is usually household items such as silverware, vases etc. and jewelry that was created from silver during the time period between 1785-1940. Chinese export silver was created from silver of varying purities specifically for the Western markets. In the earlier years those who were rather well off could have their silverware, pitchers and other items custom made to their specifications in China. Early 19th century Chinese jewelry is usually marked with Chinese ideograms (characters). Many times the pieces that were meant for export will have English or western letters or hallmarks as well as Chinese ideograms or shop marks also known as chop marks.
There is an overlap between this and what I call Chinese Export Jewelry so I personally only use Chinese Export Silver to describe silver jewelry from 1785-to around 1911. The Qing dynasty lasted from 1644-1911. Towards the end of the dynasty you begin to see heavier Western influence (even on the pieces not meant for export) and the markings and materials used changes. So this is the date I use as a cutoff because it just makes sense to me for jewelry.
Early Chinese Export Jewelry (1911 – 1948) = At the end of the Qing Dynasty around 1911, many pieces of jewelry were sold from personal collections and shipped internationally. Around 1920 there was a major increase in the amount of jewelry that was exported out of China for other markets. Older pieces of Qing jewelry as well as new designs were sold. In addition, many pieces of Qing jewelry were incorporated or re-purposed into new jewelry designs meant for export. It was not unusual to see a Qing jade centerpiece set into a new bracelet or pieces of court necklaces, beaded into a redesigned necklace.
Both traditional Chinese and western designs such as Art Deco were manufactured during this time. The materials used also changed and designs were made in silver as well as brass with a silver or gilt plating. During this time silver jewelry was usually marked with CHINA SILVER, SILVER or SILVER MADE IN CHINA. Plated brass jewelry was usually marked CHINA. Most pieces of older Chinese export jewelry came from the 1920’s-1940’s. This massive export continued until around 1948.
NO trade with mainland China (1949-1970) = Trade with mainland China was completely shut down during this time.
Late Chinese Export Jewelry (1971-1990’s) = Trade resumed with China in 1971. The communist government required all the citizens to relinquish all of their personal silver jewelry and adornments. You had to comply to show your patriotism. The government then sold all the jewelry to Western buyers. This is the reason many Chinese are working to regain their jewelry as part of restoring their Chinese heritage today.
I think of this as the crazy transitional period. During this time you will see jewelry marked with older marks, SILVER, CHINA and 925. Sometimes you will see pieces with older findings marked silver and 925 elsewhere on the jewelry. If you have a piece of jewelry that looks like Chinese export with nothing but a 925 marking, it is 1971+. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish these late Chinese export jewelry from early designs. What I have observed is the silver used on newer designs is thinner, the enameling is different (cleaner looking), the backs are sometimes enameled in white, the word SILVER is in smaller letters or on an oval plaque. Many earrings and pins also use S.925 which should not be confused with Scandinavian designs.
Contemporary = I consider contemporary export designs to be 2000 or newer. By this time, all the silver jewelry from China should have 925 on it. I have seen some new jewelry that is meant to look like early Chinese export on auction sites so if it looks too new, be sure to see what markings are on the piece.
Other important dates and things worth mentioning.
Chinese jewelry not meant for export = The Chinese have been adorning themselves for centuries and there were many jewelry designs that were manufactured for the Chinese people to wear themselves up until trade was shut down in 1949. Bracelets in pairs were popular as wedding gifts and even full suites of jewelry were available to those who could afford them. At the end of the Qing dynasty, there was a change in fashions so some Chinese jewelry shows a Western influence even though they were not specifically created for export.
Peking Style Bracelets = The extremely popular bracelets that are decorated with Chinese characters, designs consisting of cloisonné set on top of mesh wire work and decorated with semi-precious stones have been called “Peking style bracelets”. These bracelets were made from the late 19th-early 20th century. This style was commonly replicated after 1971 as well.
Older Cinnabar Jewelry Vs. Newer Cinnabar Resin = Cinnabar is created from layers of lacquer. Each layer was allowed to dry, another was painted on and the process was repeated. The use of true cinnabar the mercuric mineral in China dates back to at least the Han Dynasty 206 B.C-A.D. 220. Its use for carvings gained popularity in the Song Dynasty 9690-1279. The technique was called tsuishu and involved painting layers of lacquer (sap from the lac tree) tinted with mercuric sulfide to make it red (obtained from the mineral cinnabar). Sometimes layers of fabric can be seen between layers of lacquer on older 18th century pieces. Eventually the Chinese did realize the health risks and would finish the piece with a layer of clear untinted lacquer to seal it.
Chinese Court Necklaces = These necklaces were required adornment for members of the royal Chinese court, military officers and their families. They were made in the likeness of the rosary of Tibet. Each necklace consisted of a long strand of beads with a length of beads at the bottom so it had sort of a Y shape. Strands of beads decorated the sides of the necklace (called counter strands) as well. They are also called Mandarin Chinese Court Necklaces or Chao Zhu. The higher your rank, the finer the beads and materials used in the designs. They were created during the Qing Dynasty from 1644-1911.
Kingfisher Jewelry = Kingfisher feathers have a gorgeous turquoise blue color. They were used to decorate traditional Chinese jewelry up until the 1930’s when the kingfisher neared extinction. The feathers were glued inside recessed partitions in the jewelry. This technique was called tian-tsui . From far away these jewelry pieces look like turquoise enamel but upon close inspection you can see they are actually pieces of feathers. Sometimes you may see a piece of kingfisher jewelry with just a tiny bit of feathers left due to the delicacy of the feathers.
Peking glass = There is a bit of misinformation online and in the collectors circles about “Peking Glass”. There are two types of glass and beads that might correctly be called Peking Glass. The first are beads that were made in Peking that were finely crafted to resemble semi-precious stones (jade, rose quartz, amethyst, sapphire, coral etc.), that were used in Mandarin Chinese Court Necklaces. The glass beads used in court necklaces could be smooth or carved. Cobalt or blue glass appears to have been a favorite for carved beads. The second are beads created by carving through outside layers of glass to allow another color of glass to show through. Sometimes the beads were carved from only one color of glass. These beads were decorated with flowers, fish and other designs. These are still being replicated today and can be purchased new.
Any other glass and glass beads from China should be referred to as “Chinese glass”. You could also use “Peking Glass Style” or "Peking Style Glass" to describe newer glass beads, cabs and drops manufactured in other countries like Czechoslovakia that imitate jade and the original Peking glass used in court necklaces. Any stones such as mottled art glass should not be called Peking Style Glass because they do not resemble real stones and are different from the glass that would have been used during the Qing Dynasty or in court necklaces. This may not sit too well with dedicated glass bead collectors though.
I have two Pinterest research boards that you may find interesting and helpful:
References and recommended websites:
"Kingfisher feather art: Tian-tsui." Wikipedia. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingfisher_feather_art:_tian-tsui>
Discussions on Peking glass beads can be found on the beadcollector.net forums here: http://beadcollector.net/cgi-bin/anyboard.cgi?fvp=/openforum/&cmd=iYz&aK=49607&iZz=49607&gV=0&kQz=&aO=1&iWz=0