META-MUSEUM: 18th & 19th Century Chinese Export Silver for the Islamic World

 META-MUSEUM: Chinese Export Silver for the Islamic World

The Chinese Export Silver makers of the 18th and 19th century were masters of adapting their skills to create objects of beauty not only for the Western world, but also for the Islamic world of Arabia, the Far East and the Indian sub-continent.

This should hardly come as a surprise since the earliest silver that came into China in the Sung and Tang dynasties came from Sassania [modern-day Iran]. This silver, although created mainly by Sephardi Jewish silversmiths that lived in Sassania, had what we would recognise today as having distinct Persian and Mediterranean influences. So we find in the Qing dynasty – 1644-1912 [the last Imperial Chinese dynasty], Chinese Export Silver objects made specifically for the Islamic market; of these, the predominant was the rosewater sprinkler.

Illustrated [left] we have a circa 1830 rosewater sprinkler made by the Canton-based maker Yatshing.

This item last appeared in auction at Christie’s, South Kensington in 2009 and realised a hammer price then of
almost $3000. Today, I would expect such an item to achieve at least twice that, especially from such an early Chinese Export Silver maker.

Illustrated [right] we have a superb circa 1840 parcel-gilt chiselled and chased sprinkler from the Canton-based maker we know as “Gothic K”

Rose water and rose water sprinklers have a long history. While predominantly of the Islamic world, rosewater sprinklers also have been used in the Indian sub-continent from the Mughal period [1526-1857] to the present day.

Perfumation and thurification have very long history and can be traced back to prehistoric times. For thurification various types of incense burners were and are used until this day. For perfumation, rose-water was used that was stored and applied in specially made sprinklers. Rose, from which the rose-water was made, has a very long history. Some scholars claimed that the importance of the rose or indeed, the origin of roses, was discovered by the Persians – the biblical Hebrew for “rose” is “shoshannah”; the biblical Hebrew for Persia is “shushan”. Susa was the capital of Elam – residence of King Darius.

Illustrated [left] we have a Chinese Export Silver circa 1870 rosewater sprinkler by the Canton-based maker MK.

For storing perfumes the shape of the “tear bottles” or unguentaria was favoured. Evidence for the continuity of rose-water sprinklers is well provided by surviving bronze and later by copper and silver examples. The Arabic name for these rose-water sprinklers is qum-qum. In Iran and Central Asia, first of all in Afghanistan, such metal vessels became very popular and widespread during the early medieval Islamic period. There were several types made, but perhaps one of the earliest of these had pear-shaped bodies which was decorated with almond-shaped, or as they are sometimes called ‘tear-drop’ elements. These were not only decorative, but also functional since they provided better grips on the vessels. They had short waisted necks, opening mouths which had several small knobs around the rim. It is claimed that this type owes its origin to the earlier Roman bronze sprinklers.

In Persian they are known as golabdan. These are dated to the 9th or 10th century. The illustrated example may have been made in the famous metalworking centre based at Ghazni in Afghanistan.

As regards to metal sprinklers between the mid-13th and 16th centuries, we have only a few, but extremely nice examples. One of the finest known metal sprinklers, dates from the Mameluk period. It was made for the Mameluk Sultan Hassan [748/1347 – 762/1361)]and is decorated with extensive gold and silver inlay. Its shape is very similar to the previously mentioned glass sprinklers, except that the body is pear-shaped. The tall and tapering neck has a collar at its lower end, but sadly the top is missing. Today it is preserved in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo.

After the sixteenth century an entirely new type of sprinklers were introduced and played important roles it seems in three countries, namely in Turkey, India and China. These new type of vessels were made of brass, copper but mainly silver.

Illustrated [left] we have a Chinese Export Silver circa 1900 rosewater sprinkler.

The word attar, which is today a synonym for rose oil, comes from the Arabic ‘itr, meaning “perfume” or “essence.” The first description of the distillation of rose petals was written by the ninth-century philosopher al-Kindi, and more sophisticated equipment was described in the 10th century by al-Razi; one of the earliest centers of rose-water production was in southern Persia. Later, in the 13th century, rose water was produced widely in Syria, and the name of the oil-bearing rose genus Damascena may trace its origins to the city of Damascus. But true attar—rose oil as we know it today—was not produced until the late 16th century, when the double-distillation technique was developed.

Hand-held rosewater sprinklers, traditionally with long straight necks and bulbous bases, have a time-honoured role in festivities in much of the Islamic world. For example, to mark the end of a wedding feast, rose water is sprinkled on the hands and faces of guests. Aesthetic appreciation and commercial demand have encouraged silversmiths and other artisans to develop exceptionally beautiful sprinklers, examples of which can be found in museums throughout the Arabian Gulf region. In the home, a precious rosewater sprinkler is a symbol of hospitality as well as an outward demonstration of social status and affluence.

Rosewater sprinklers were often used more often than not as pairs. Today, it is a matching pair that will have enhanced value due to rarity.

I wrote this article originally for the website MuseumStudies and published online on 31 October 2012

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