Pearl River Meets the East River over a Chinese Export Silver Box
This box, as seen from above, was commissioned by Charles Constant Delmonico, the great nephew of one of the founding brothers of the iconic Delmonico’s restaurant in New York. Set with turquoise cabochon stones, the box is both constructed of and decorated in an intricate reticulated network of high relief swirling dragons amidst clouds. At the center of the lid sits a shield-shaped cartouche engraved with three initials CCD.
For a nation that had been almost totally introspective to the point of being hermetically sealed off for hundreds of years, it never ceases to amaze me how inextricably linked the phenomenon that is Chinese Export Silver is to America, in particular the Eastern Seaboard.
True, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 opened up trade with the West and The China Trade era was born. But beyond the relatively confined designated foreign areas of Canton and other treaty ports, Westerners could not and did not infiltrate China proper. Yet, anyone viewing the Pearl River flowing past Old Canton and Shameen Island would not have seen much river, for hundreds of cargo boats and ships vied for the chance to berth in order to unload and load precious cargo.
The foreigners in Canton, merchants included, were immersed in a dense, old Chinese city, of which they formed but a relatively small contingent. Despite the restrictions, they were still part of Chinese commercial life. From their “factories,” they could peer into a vast, wealthy continent whose riches made all the difficulties worthwhile. They faced risks of fire, disease and social unrest along with their Chinese counterparts. They pressed for greater access to the interior of China, but for nearly 150 years could not move out of their profitable walled ghetto. They suffered because the rewards were vast beyond their wildest dreams. If they survived, they went back to Boston wealthy men.
The British and American merchants were the dominant foreign traders; the former had slightly different agendas than the latter, who in the main consisted of established entrepreneurial Massachusetts Bay merchant families. It was these very men who quickly understood the lie of the land and that silver in Canton was of high quality, and the workmanship of equally high quality, but the cost was but a fraction of that in Boston or New York. And so it was that within 20 years of the signing of the treaty, high-quality silver items were flowing back to Boston on clippers and supercargos from the silvermakers in Canton. Much of this Chinese Export Silver during this early period—which was to last 150 years—was customized special commissions.
On the base of the box sit the marks of the maker in Canton, completing the mystery. For the maker is Wang Hing, probably the most celebrated in the West of all Chinese Export Silver makers; Despite a whole plethora of silver items from Wang Hing inhabiting the world today, we know very little of the face behind the name other than his name was almost certainly not Wang Hing.
Among these commissions, ordered about 1870, was an exquisite silver box that was to make its way on an 8,000-mile trip from Canton to New York City; a journey that ends with two icons of the East and the West finally crossing paths in 19th-century New York City.
The box, set with turquoise cabochon stones, is both constructed of and decorated in an intricate reticulated network of high relief swirling dragons amidst clouds. At the center of the lid sits a shield-shaped cartouche engraved with the initials CCD. On the base of the box sit the marks of the maker in Canton, completing the mystery. For the maker is Wang Hing, probably the most celebrated of all Chinese Export Silver makers in the West.
The initials CCD stand for Charles Constant Delmonico, the great-nephew of one of the founding brothers of the iconic Delmonico’s restaurant in New York. Wang Hing’s Delmonico box was created toward the end of a period of a several-hundred-year history and tradition of intricate Chinese silverwork set with precious and semi-precious stones. Despite a whole plethora of silver items from Wang Hing inhabiting the world today, we know very little of the face behind the name other than his name was almost certainly not Wang Hing. We do know that whoever was in command of this silver shop must have been a quality control freak, so constant is the level of expertise displayed. On the other side of the coin, we know almost everything about Delmonico’s rise to stardom.
Born in 1840, by the age of just 22, Charles Delmonico was managing the luxurious 14th Street Delmonico’s restaurant, where no lady was permitted to dine at without a male escort and men and women could not close the door while eating in a private room. Charles was an extremely hard-working and capable businessman who drove Delmonico’s from strength to strength and further uptown, opening at a new location at 5th Avenue and 26th Street in 1876, where Lobster a la Newberg and Eggs Benedict were invented and Manhattan Clam Chowder first came into the world.
During the Civil War, Delmonico’s Restaurant issued its own private issue currency. One of its notes is shown here. The note is dated July 1862 and shows restaurant at No. 2 on South William Street (called the “Citadel”), but the note does not bear the name of the restaurant. Instead, the note bears the name “C. Delmonico.” The currency was used then in the same way that currency is used today, with shoppers being able to use the Delmonico script to pay for their purchases, not just at Delmonico’s Restaurant, but at any business in New York and, indeed, the United States. Such was the power of the Delmonico name and reputation. For those currency collectors out there, a 15-cent Delmonico’s note today is worth about $250.
Charles’s love of luxury was legendary, as his patronage of Tiffany & Co. was equally so. The Wang Hing box is part of a Delmonico family collection of superb items that are known to have been supplied by Tiffany’s, but we sadly have no documentary evidence the Wang Hing piece had the same provenance. Equally, it is believed by many that for a period of about 20 years, Wang Hing was a regular supplier to the New York store*.
Delmonico’s was a magnet to the rich and famous from all over the world, including luminaries such as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Lily Langtry, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and Napoleon III. Had Catherine the Great been alive, she’d have no doubt been there!
Chinese Export Silver makers of the 18th and 19th centuries can be likened to the celebrity architects of the period. Both craved the next wealthy flamboyant client for the chance to work their skills fully to create lasting edifices to their respective crafts. Unlike the architects, however, it is highly doubtful any of the master silversmiths ever saw the light of day, let alone met a client or their agent. The complex hierarchy of a Chinese Export Silver company was somewhat pyramidal, with the retailer being the frontman—the showman who not only built the business on charming the “right” people, but also had to have a profound knowledge and understanding of quality, how to produce it, who to have make it and then be responsible for the finished item being his vision being made incarnate. The retailer was the ringmaster. The finished object would have been exquisite and the never-to-be-seen workshop was nothing more than a sweatshop. This was the accepted way.
The workshops of Wang Hing & Co. would not have been in the back or upstairs, such as at Carl Fabergé or at a top French couturier. The workshops were almost an irrelevancy as long as it produced. Such was the established and accepted hierarchy. So, when we refer to an item of Wang Hing, we are acknowledging a degree of quality synonymous with the name Wang Hing and we are subconsciously acknowledging that someone in the pyramid controlled the artisan makers who delivered that quality.
This is a Chinese filigree silver gilt basket made by the Canton silversmith Cutshing, circa 1830. Probably intended for gloves or other items of a lady’s toilet, it is oval with six mounted feet along a decorative lower edge. The lid has a Fou Shou finial with floral sprigs surrounding it and the basket is lined with the finest satin silk and found its way to the already large collection of Chinese silver objects Catherine the Great had cherished in her days at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The intricacy which Chinese silvermakers had mastered appealed to Catherine’s love of all things rococo; she was, after all, what we would consider a totally over-the-top woman. One also gets an impression, from pictures and newspaper comments of the time, that Charles Delmonico had the same bent; a showman as only New York knows how to produce, there’s nothing more than a Chinese Export Silver maker likes: the chance to express his skills in silver. This Cutshing basket is attributed to have been part of Empress Alexandra’s toilet, she also being a lady not of simple needs.
Anyone who has ever bought a ring in London’s famed Hatton Garden would know that runners who ply the street and its surrounding alleyways will magically appear with just the right stone or setting from seemingly nowhere. The silver workshops of Old Canton worked on a similar principle. The retail shop was linked by invisible arteries to hundreds of workshops.
Social hierarchy was very important in China and existed in a defined structure from ancient times. By the 18th and 19th centuries, this structure remained more or less the same, with a few minor aberrations, that were a product of greed engendered by the China Trade in general.
Below the Imperial and noblemen strata was basically what was known as “The Four Occupations” or four categories of people. The Shi were the knightly aristocratic order. Then came the Nong, the agricultural class who were considered valuable members of society. The Shang were of the merchant classes, much reviled because they were deemed an unnecessary evil, but by the time we get to the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, it was common for merchants to be wealthy. As such, they were able to build a power base even though in theory their status hadn’t changed. This was especially so in Canton, where the Cohong merchants were latter-day equivalent to today’s mafia. In the context of the China Trade, the Cohong formed alliances with individual merchants, as well as foreign merchants which, as a collective, acted as a formidable trading force out to exploit every possible way of making vast sums of money. To do this, they had to control the next social strata, the Gong; the artisan classes to which the silversmiths and their workers belonged. Theoretically, the Gong had a slightly higher social position than the Shang, but by the 18th and 19th centuries, the mechanics of reality had changed this.
Within each social group was another hierarchy, so in the context of a highly skilled master silversmith, he could have either employed workers of varying degrees of skill to work under him or he could have put together a loose working arrangement of fellow silversmiths, each with a hierarchy working under and around them.
A Chinese Export Silver gilt filigree small casket decorated with a white jade lion-form plaque on the lid surrounded by champlevé enamel flower appliques and enamel appliques of dragons and flowers in panels on each side. The casket was sold at auction at Christie’s, New York for $22,500.
So the Wang Hings and Tuck Changs of the Chinese Export Silver world were more likely to have been highly perceptive Shang entrepreneurs who knew quality and could produce it on demand, who knew the art of networking and marketing inside out. Those that supplied them were not paid well at all, knew their place and somehow found contentment in being able to create beautiful objects.
The Delmonico box bearing Wang Hing’s makers’ marks is exquisite, has a complex history attached to it and most probably has an equally complex series of manufacturing processes that started life in a hot, crowded workshop in Canton and arrived in all its glory into one of the most famous pair of hands in New York, halfway across the world and across two very different cultures that somehow understood each other.
It still seems ironic that these beautiful examples of silver could find their way to the Winter Palace and Fifth Avenue from a dark alley in Old Canton.
At least half of the Chinese Export Silver that exists in the world is still in the U.S., thanks to the Massachusetts Bay merchants. While it is impossible to know exactly how much, the signs over the past two years indicate it is substantial. Yet awareness of this silver category is relatively low.
A smaller version of the Delmonico box, again by Wang Hing, circa 1895.
Chinese Export Silver doesn’t always look Chinese. In fact, some of the best examples could easily look to be English Georgian or American silver of the same period. It is, however, not straight forward to identify as to which maker, date or the city.
I have just completed the third edition of my catalogue of Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks, which will be available soon. It is the largest compilation of marks ever produced for this silver category—almost 200 makers. While this makes identification simpler, it can never make it simple. Like many collectables, it takes time and handling to know the category. This is just as much the case with Chinese ceramics as it is with Chinese Export Silver.
As Confucius said: “I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there”.
*In December 2013, the archive department at Tiffany & Co. agreed to begin a research project with me to determine what the relationship was between Tiffany and Wang Hing. The findings will be a publicly available paper that I shall compile.
Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills;
To: Charles Sweigart at Search Ends Here Antiques, Reading, Pa.; Christie’s, New York; The Hermitage, Amsterdam; The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
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 email@example.com.
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