Treasured Kingfisher Feathers Give Chinese Export Silver the Blues
Here we see a stunning hair ornament of tian tsui and silver gilt set around a carved carnelian agate stone depicting collectively a serpent and a frog amidst an abundance of flora. This particular piece dates from the early 19th century. Tian tsui is the excruciatingly difficult and time-consuming process of making inlay designs by using individual strands taken from kingfisher feathers.
The striking iridescent blue of kingfisher feathers have been highly prized in China for at least 2,500 years. Their widespread use in hair ornaments and jewelry gave rise to their being acknowledged as symbols of feminine beauty, while the sheer reality that a kingfisher is an extremely small bird and difficult to either catch or rear in captivity caused the feathers to become symbols of wealth and social standing.
China’s fascination with the kingfisher appears to have begun during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-476 B.C.), when poems were written extolling their color and beauty. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), palaces were decorated with kingfisher wall hanging and panels. While once only available to the Imperial Court, over the centuries this filtered down into the aristocratic strata of society and became another source for silversmiths to create an art form that was excruciatingly difficult and time-consuming to produce; the art of kingfisher feather inlay, which is known in China as the art of tian tsui (点翠), meaning literally “dotting with kingfisher.”
Here we see the absolutely glorious tian tsui coronet made for the Dowager Empress Xiaojing [1573-1620]. Intricate silver gilt caging is set with seed pearls, tourmaline and turquoise cabochons that are surrounded by a virtual extravaganza of kingfisher inlay and feather fronds. The fact this piece survived 500 years in such remarkable condition is in itself a miracle, since kingfisher feathers are notoriously favored by certain small insects. Although protected now at the National Museum of China in Beijing, it spent around 450 years of its life in palaces subject to the voracious appetite of the more selective of bugs.
was a natural for a master silversmith to embrace. The art of feather inlay required a base and frame to contain it; since only the seriously wealthy were able to afford it, this captive audience was of obvious attraction to the silversmith. The inlay process required cutting tiny pieces of iridescent feathers and combining it with a crystal-clear glue that was the set within a silver gilt frame and base to give an overall effect that was not visually dissimilar from cloisonné
In her 1908 travelogue, “Mrs. Marco Polo Remembers,” Mary Parker Dunning recorded:
“I bought a kingfisher pin the wonder worker, a patient, spectacled Chinaman, takes a single hair from out of the bird’s wing, draws it through a bit of glue and lays it on the silver foundation. Then another hair, which he lays beside the first. Then another and another and another, endlessly and headachingly and eye-tiringly, until he has laid the filaments from the feathers of the bird’s wings so closely together that they look like a piece of enamel.”
As with most skilled decorative treatments in China, they tended to be centered around certain cities. Because of the procurement logistics of feathers, Canton became the center for the art of tian tsui, which is also where many of the more successful silversmiths were based. With the advent of Chinese Export Silver, some of the more niche makers specialized in making kingfisher pieces. While tian tsui was intrinsically very much a Chinese-focused phenomenon, we must remember that Chinese Export Silver was a definitive and self-contained silver category and much of it was made or sold to the Chinese market. It also required a successful silversmith or a silversmith with good financial funding to be able to afford the raw materials to make tian tsui, so it was a natural extracurricular activity for a Chinese Export Silver maker or retailer to embrace. In the 19th century, we are aware though of tian tsui being exported to the established Chinese communities in San Francisco, New York and in Australia which, through the natural course of time, dissipated into the wider populace.
Here we see a 19th-century hair ornament. The inlay work is so fine it is almost impossible to believe these are even feathers—it could easily be mistaken for enamelwork. But this is an interesting piece since it was made by a Canton retail silversmith who had obviously created it for a niche customer.
Xi Guan was one of the most affluent areas of Canton in the 19th century, made up of large signature grey-brick villas decorated with superb Manchuria windows (pictured above) and quiet leafy lanes. To locate a silversmith in such an area does have its logic, albeit somewhat restrictive on footfall, but the footfall that it was graced with would have been well-heeled.
The silver comb carries the mark of Xiang An, who was unusually situated in the Xi Guan (West Gate) district of Old Canton.
The 19th century was the swan song era for tian tsui. This was not for reasons of changing fashions but simply because the population of kingfishers had been decimated by the trade in killing them. The finest of kingfisher feathers to be had were from Cambodia and were prized above all others. The export trade of feathers to China was one of the largest export earners for the Khmer Empire and was used to fund the construction of many magnificent temples, including Angkor Wat. The mass slaughter of the kingfisher in Cambodia led not only to the species becoming almost extinct but it is believed to have contributed considerably to the decline of the Khmer Empire itself when demand could no longer be met! Cambodian kingfisher became such a status symbol in China that it could only be afforded by royalty or mandarins.
I also have to report the unpleasant fact that in order to have kingfisher feathers at their brightest and most vibrant, they should ideally be pulled from a live bird! It defies imagination to us today. Needless to say, the art of tian tsui is banned today.
Here we have an early 19th-century butterfly hair ornament that is made up of several layers that are all “en tremblant, a European jewelry technique that was developed and used in the 18th and 19th centuries.” Whoever wore this would have had several hair ornaments, as well as earrings, and the overall effect must have been a very calculated statement.
Here we have a quite extraordinary coronet, again using an intricate silver gilt cage as a base adorned with phoenix heads that drip seed pearls and turquoises. Whoever made or commissioned this piece went the extra mile and had the coronet stand made of silver gilt inlaid with kingfisher.
The term “en tremblant literally means “to tremble” and the technique allowed faceted gemstones to be attached to a “trembler”—usually a tiny silver or gold spring, which can be seen on the flower stem above.
We can get some impression of how a combination of many “en tremblant” pieces assembled into hair ornamentation must have looked via a 21st-century movie (above), as well as understand the composure and self-confidence the wearer would have had to make such a statement of social standing.
Even using the special glue treatment the art of tian tsui employed, it was almost exclusively used in hair ornaments, coronets and brooches. The technique simply was too fragile to be incorporated into usable silver objects. Still, the application has been found in modern items, such as in early 20th-century objects.
Tian tsui had become known in Europe in the early 1920s among the uber-wealthy and the interest culminated in the Exhibition of Chinese Art held in London in 1936 at Burlington House, where a whole section was devoted to the art of silver and tian tsui pieces. But it was Louis Cartier—or rather it was Charles Jacqueau, Cartier’s favourite in-house designer—who must have been the only Western purveyor of luxury who produced items with tian tsui. Jacqueau had a fascination with the Ballets Russes and Serge Diaghilev’s “Sheherazade.” Jacqueau discovered tian tsui and felt this was the epitome of the exotic.
This table clock was made by Cartier in 1927. The box is a combination of gold and green nephrite, with a push agate top button, while the face is a superb example of tian tsui. It could only have been made in China and is probably one of the very last pieces of tian tsui work ever to have been made. Most probably a special commission, the clock sold in 2012 at Christie’s, Hong Kong for $220,000.
This silver gilt tian tsui and pearl hair ornament was sold at auction in America for $280. As yet, it hasn’t yet come onto Chinese buyers’ radars, hence, one assumes, the low values. Yet, in its day, tian tsui was equal in value to the finest gemstones and silks.
As part of my research, I am now working with Cartier’s archives to discover who in Canton created the tian tsui elements for Cartier products, mirroring the research I shall be doing with Tiffany & Co. on its relationship with Wang Hing.
Part of my research is now working with Cartier’s archives to discover who in Canton created the tian tsui elements.
The practice of creating tian tsui items died as an art in 1940, but many pieces survived and actually may be found in Europe and, particularly, in America. Chinese Export Silver is still not particularly well-known or understood in the West, but tian tsui is really quite obscure and, as a result, pieces can be acquired for relatively little cost given the sheer skill and time it took to create them.
Many beauties take the air by the Ch’ang waterfront.
Their embroidered silk robes in the spring sun are gleaming.
And hanging far down from their temples are
blue leaves of delicate kingfisher feathers.
— A verse from “A Song of Fair Women” by the famous Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770)
Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; and to the University of Hawaii-Manoa Art Gallery and the National Museum of China for images.
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. His “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks [1785-1940],” is the largest collector’s guide for Chinese Export Silver available, with information on 155 makers and 133 pages of in-depth history. It is updated every six to eight months and is only available as a download file. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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