The Chinese Export Silver makers embraced the style and excelled

Chinese Export Silver makers were always able to master western styles and excel at creating extraordinary pieces that were the epitome of those styles.

Many of the master silversmiths operated in Shanghai and Hong Kong and these were both cities that had affluent international communities; dedicated followers of fashion. Art Deco hit Shanghai big time; Art Nouveau less so – but the Chinese Export Silver makers embraced both these styles and created silver items that while definitive of the styles, they managed to retain something unique from their European and American counterparts.

Shanghai’s Bund [left and below] was a veritable cornucopia of buildings in the Art Deco-style. Shanghainese took Art Deco to their hearts.

The mania for Art Deco had Chinese Export Silver makers finding themselves making a substantial amount of silver for the “home” market – albeit a good proportion of them were foreign residents and affluent too.

Of all possible silver objects, it was the cocktail shaker that became an iconic “must-have” One would be hard-pushed to think of an object that is so best suited to the Art Deco style since not only did the shape lend itself so well, but Art Deco was the age of the cocktail, not to mention decadence!

Here [left] we have a stunning cocktail shaker by Wang Hing, circa 1925. It’s a wonderful fusion of east-meets-west with even the traditional bamboo foliate motif having a deco twist, while the dragon was possibly one step too far, being left in its time honoured fierce state

Chinese Export Silver cocktail shakers are not too difficult to find today – at a time cocktails have again come into their own!

Staying on a drinks theme, these rice wine tot beakers by Zee Wo embrace all the deco silver decorative treatments – finely planished, stark high polished and vertical lining

While the simplicity of this cake server [left] by Zee Sung is both stylish and  practical, its finely planished handle appropriately decorated with a single plain polished circular cartouche – a pearl.

The deco period lent itself superbly for women’s fashions – women could be stylish and dramatic.

Wang Hing translated this into creating circa 1925 brooches, which we have two examples of on the right that demonstrate how traditional Chinese motifs sat perfectly comfortably within a deco framework.

Living in Shanghai has often been romanticized in Western and Chinese popular culture alike. Life was particularly glamorous in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Whereas Canton had been traditional centre for silvermakers at the beginning of the Chinese Export Silver period, it seems natural that this stylish city would attract the makers to set up an operation there. This is the common thread that links all the silver in this article – all the makers had a Shanghai manufacturing base. The fact there was also an international community there was an cherry on the cake the makers obviously couldn’t resist. Suddenly they had a “home market” in addition to their export market.

By the 1920s Shanghai had a expatriate community of 60,000 living in the designated International Settlement and the newer districts to the north of there. Most of foreigners were British but there were also sizable populations of Americans, French and Russians. Between World Wars I and II tens of thousands of European refugees fleeing Bolshevism and Nazism and equally large numbers of Chinese refugees fleeing civil strife and the Japanese invasion flooded into Shanghai.

Most of the 20,000 white Russian aristocrats that came to China after the Bolshevik Revolution in the 1920s and 30s arrived on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Many of them supported themselves with jewels they carried with them from Russia. Some managed to maintain lavish lifestyles and villas.

Known as the “Paris of Asia,” Shanghai boasted fine restaurants – it also had casinos, greyhound and horse racing tracks, scores of nightclubs and several hundred ballrooms. Shanghai was Berlin and Paris combined with heady oriental overtones.

Here we have a glorious swing-handle bonbon basket by Tuck Chang [left], circa 1920. Again, the skillful combination of traditional Chinese motifs blends so well with the deco simplicity.
While [right] we have this bonbon basket by Yok Sang where the simple fine planish work of the dish combined with the stark polished rim and simple ball feet capture the style.

And this cake slice by Sincere & Co both embraces the Art Deco style and screams quality that this department store was renowned for – a department store that had its own makers mark in the tradition of Tiffany & Co, Wing On, Harrods, Selfridge & Co etc. Again we see the use of fine planishing on the handle combined with a simplistic bamboo motif on the serving blade.

Because of Shanghai’s attraction as the Paris and Berlin of the East, Americans, French and British tourists flocked there. It was de rigeur to visit department stores such as Wing On and Sincere and so a considerable amount of Chinese Export Silver found its way to the West in this way. It is not known how many foreign residents managed to escape Shanghai, possessions and all, before the 1941 Japanese invasion.

Art Deco Chinese Export Silver is not as rare as one might imagine. It is such a unique take on this equally unique style.


This article was inspired by Denise Marroquin, Junior Specialist and Vincent Krenz, Senior Specialist Asian Applied Arts at Hotel des Ventes, Zurich


53 pages, covering over 100 Chinese Export silversmiths – showing their various marks and relevant information plus an insight into the bygone age of “The Lost World of the Silversmiths & the Silver Emporia in China”


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