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The Art of the Silver Cage Shows Creative Genius of Chinese Silversmiths

by Adrien von Ferscht (08/09/13).

中國出口銀器: 銀籠子的藝術

This fine reticulated Chinese Export Silver casket by Wang Hing features dragons chasing the flaming pearl in clouds is the Chinese silversmith’s ultimate dream.

Chinese Export Silver produced some extraordinary silversmiths by anyone’s standards; a much-used statement by me and one I am oft criticized about. There is an unwritten hierarchy of perceived best makers in the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries; sadly, Chinese silversmiths were not even considered eligible to this exclusive virtual club.

Chinese silversmiths thought outside of the box and, in doing so, created some rather idiosyncratic objects that are not only marvels of the art of silvermaking but also became iconic objects of their day. Ingenuity and humor were the drivers of the quirkiness. 

Certain silversmithing skills became synonymous with the Chinese Export Silver makers; filigree work was probably one of the first they excelled at, reticulated silver was another. Classic Chinese motifs particularly lent themselves to pierced silver; Yun Chien or “cloud collar” is used right across the Chinese Export Silver spectrum. It is the perfecting of this art that gave rise to a phenomenon that is peculiar to Chinese Export Silver, although it is to be found in American, English and continental silver of the late 19th century and in the Art Nouveau/Secessionist silver in a milder and less ornate style.

This innate ingenuity often caused the Chinese to adopt what we in the West would consider an everyday object, claim it for themselves in a rather fanatical way, and then recreate it in a totally other guise to make it unmistakably Chinese. One such object the Chinese Export Silver makers created was born out of the Haig Whisky Dimple bottle.

One such object the Chinese Export Silver makers created was born out of the Haig Whisky Dimple bottle. Above are three different versions of the bottle, including the “pinch” version for the American market in the middle.

A particularly high-quality Wang Hing decanter, circa late 19th century.

A smaller Haig Dimple decanter by a little-known maker Tai-Ping.

Here we see the ultimate socialite’s collection, most of which are Wang Hing pieces. This collection sold at Christie’s, New York in April 2013 for $6,875 to a Chinese client. One would like to think of this gracing the drinks table in a ShangHai penthouse being drooled over by that city’s glitterati.

It probably demonstrates how Westerners take things for granted, because this bottle was actually first produced in 1893 and even pre-dates the birth of the first Coca Cola bottle in 1899, making it probably one of the very first designer packaging designs. The bottle came bound in a brass wire cage that was designed to keep the stopper in and to help protect the glass during shipping. The tri-corn shape and the dimple on each side made it incredibly strong. It took a lot of ingenuity, probably helped by the Chinese love of a drink, for the silversmiths to realize the bottle could withstand the intense heat of making a silver cage to replace the original wire mesh, while the stopper became a rather grand silver affair.

Chinese Export Silver caged decanters using a four-compartment bottle became quite common in the early 20th century. At the middle right, we have a fine example made by Tack Hing, while middle left we have a rather unusual caged decanter by Yu Chang with four compartments each labeled: Cointreau; Benedictine; Crème de Menthe and Apricot. Yu Chang also operated in both Hong Kong and ShangHai. On the left a Wang Hing example.

To complete the ultimate cocktail table, we have on the left a caged bitters bottle by the Hong Kong maker Sammy, spout head being a serpents head with a rather ingenious hinged lid as the “mouth.”

And for the ultimate show-off, a pair of Luen Hing Haig decanters; Luen Hing also being a ShangHai maker.

Wang Hing is generally thought as the silversmith who first attempted this transformation into a whisky decanter. They were made in the ShangHai and Hong Kong workshops and quickly became the next must-have among the affluent foreign communities and Chinese. The workmanship is quite astounding. Made in two halves, the “cage” is dressed onto the bottle and then soldered, but on Wang Hing pieces, it is virtually impossible to detect this is anything other than a one-piece silver cloak. This is obviously helped by the swirling reticulated design, but masterful and skillful nevertheless.

At the end of the 19th century, ShangHai and Hong Kong were both considered quite decadent cities whose European parallels would have been Paris and Berlin. ShangHai, in particular, spawned many fashions and it was here that the mania for Haig whisky in the Dimple bottle became quite the thing. Wang Hing simply did what he did best; seizing an opportunity to create a luxury object that would sell in the hundreds and thousands, which his version of the Haig decanter did. Other silversmiths followed suit and this then led to evermore fantastical “caged” creations.

A circa 1900 Wang Hing silver-caged small green glass perfume bottle that achieved just under $750 in a UK auction house in late 2012 against an estimate of $100. Since this is a bottle I can’t readily recognize as being European, it probably indicates it was made in China.

This example from Wang Hing is an identical bottle but a different treatment to the cage work; the only difference being this achieved a $1,800 asking price in an online auction platform. Green caged bottles of this shape seem to be the adopted form.

The very same bottle appears yet again in this particularly elegant reticulated cage using an effective chrysanthemum motif. This is one of the few examples I have seen using a glass stopper rather than a silver finial topped cork.

A Wang Hing bottle that also has a glass stopper. These four examples of treatments to what is essentially the same bottle show the individuality that can be achieved by caging.

The caging technique was also applied to perfume bottles, but whereas the decanters were obviously utilizing a branded commercial bottle, the origin of the perfume bottles is less clear. Usually in green glass and very occasionally in claret glass, the bottles could have been made in China.

One can almost feel the sense of humor the Chinese Export Silver makers had when we see these bottles. The combination of the caging technique and the use of reticulated work transform a plain everyday glass bottle in an object of great beauty and character.

Even this very plain clear glass 1-liter size bottle we have on the left has been transformed almost beyond recognition once again by Wang Hing.

Cranberry-colored caged glass is far more rare, particularly in caged bottles. Although this is obviously not a bottle, we can see below how effective caging can be over cranberry in the Wang Hing reticulated bowl with liner.

Wang Hing, yet again, at his work and incorporating this time the yun chien cloud motif combined with a swirling dragon. The free-flowing design and workmanship is quite a contrast to the more rigid and formal caging one sees in European examples.

The two reticulated bowls below are again given a quite stunning treatment with their reticulated silver cages over the Bristol blue glass bowls.

There is quite a debate as to the capabilities of the Chinese in the 19th century to produce quality colored glass that equaled European and American standards. Generally, Chinese Export Silver open salts have either a parcel gilded interior and no liner or they have a somewhat crude clear glass that is bubble-filled— a random bullicante effect. I have never seen high-quality blue glass liners in a Chinese Export Silver salt other than those that appear to have been fitted with Bristol blue or Bohemian claret liners.

I should close by clarifying the use of the word “dimple” for the Haig bottle, since probably most of the American readers will be slightly perplexed by this. The Haig Dimple was marketed a “pinch” in America only, and is almost always referred to as the pinch bottle.


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills;

Thanks to Bonhams, London; Christie’s, London; Silverman Antiques; I Franks, London; Pasarel, Israel; Andrew Smith & Son, Winchester, U.K.; Daniel Bexfield, London; Diageo

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at www.eleven38photography.co.uk.


Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. Adrien recently released “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks,” the largest reference work for makers’ marks ever published. You can e-mail Adrien at avf@chinese-export-silver.com“> avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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