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19th century silver gilt rosewater sprinklerIt was back in 2012 that I first wrote an article about Chinese Export Silver that was clearly made for the Islamic world. A further year of research has brought to light much more information; what was already an interesting niche in an even more interesting silver category has now become all the richer for this knew knowledge. For this reason, I’ve decided to revisit the subject in order to present a more complete picture.

By “the Islamic World”, in the context of Chinese Export Silver in the 18th and 19th centuries, we are talking of Arabia, South East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, the various “Stans” of southern Russia and Armenia. The silver, again in the context of Chinese Export Silver, is almost totally confined to rosewater sprinklers. What can be a highly decorative yet not particularly significant object in principle becomes quite a complex object in the context of silver made by Chinese artisans for cultures that are, in the main, not directly connected with China.

Firstly, the rosewater sprinkler is not an exclusively Islamic item, but it is intrinsically part of Islamic culture; it is to be found connected with Islam, Judaism and Hinduism and this has a relevancy when connected to Chinese silversmiths. 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 Jewish silversmiths that lived in Sassania, had what we would recognise today as having distinct Persian and Mediterranean influences. Many of those Jewish silversmiths Gothic K 1840 rosewater sprinklereventually settled in Pien-Liang [Kaifeng] in China in the 10th century and carried on the family tradition of silversmithing down through the generations. Some 22 current Chinese surnames can trace their roots back to 10th century Kaifeng, including Ai, Gao, Jin, Li, Zhang, Shi and Zhau; a Jewish Chinese silversmith is to be found to this day in Kaifeng.  Two of these names, Jin and Shi, are equivalent to the traditional Jewish names of “Gold” and “Stone”. So it’s not totally incongruous that 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.

But it is probably us in the 20th and 21st centuries that regard the rosewater sprinkler as Islamic, when it was [and still is] used widely by Sephardi Jews in marriage ceremonies and ritual meals at Passover and New Year. At the Jewish festival of Shavuot [Pentecost], Sephardi Jews traditionally eat Sahlab and Mahlabi, both rosewater infused dairy desserts. Certainly the Sassanian Jews would have used them – Sassania being modern-day Iran, but Sassanian Jews were not technically Sephardi; they were pre-Hasmonean Jews or remnants of the first exile after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Some Sassanian Jews also eventually settled in Bombay, again many of them being silversmiths. In the 18th and 19th centuries we have silver rosewater sprinklers being made in Canton and Bombay and is highly probable why it is often difficult to distinguish between Chinese and Indian work, especially before makers’ marks became the norm. Peranakan and Batavian silver rosewater sprinklers also have a similar style of work, silver filigree often being incorporated. The art of silver filigree was very much associated with Sephardi Jewish silversmiths. We also know that Jewish silversmiths took their filigree techniques with them when they were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. Asian contacts in particular, not least through the founding of the Dutch East India Company, were to have a great influence on the further development of the technique of filigree. Jewish silversmiths, however, were adept at optimising ancient family and tribal links around the world; their trades and links were part of their naturally peripatetic survival mechanism. Karimnagar in Andra Pradesh and Trivandrum in Kerala were both known centres for highly superior silver filigree work; they also had significant Jewish populations. It is this ability to move their skills and their families to safer havens and the sharing of expertise with others that most probably helps account for the similarities between the various filigree silver work produced in South East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, North Africa and even Eastern Europe.

YatShing 1830 rosewater sprinklerRosewater sprinklers are also used in the Maha Shirvratri festival, a day dedicated to Shiva, a significant deity in Hinduism. Rosewater sprinklers have been used in the Indian sub-continent from the Mughal period (1526-1857) to the present day and are prevalent in many Islamic customs and rituals.

What is especially interesting is that given Chinese Export Silver MK 18090 rosewater sprinkleris a large and highly significant silver category, we have almost no evidence of silver being made for use in Christian rituals. We have silver tankards in the high Chinese style that were adopted as novelty christening mugs but not specifically made as such, but hardly any chalices or other Christian ceremonial ware. Yet we do have Jewish “megillot” [scrolls of Esther] and Sabbath candlesticks and we have rosewater sprinklers that we can attribute to three religions, yet nothing overtly Christian. This is particularly strange since the China Trade had a predominance of Christian merchants from Great Britain and America. It’s a mystery yet to be unravelled. The only overtly Christian objects I’ve ever come across were made at T’ou Se We in Shanghai, which was run by Jesuit priests for Chinese orphans to learn artisan skills.

Perfumation and thurification have a 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.

Wang Hing 1895 rosewater sprinklerFor 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.

The word attar, which is today a synonym for rose oil essence, 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 rose-water sprinklers, traditionally made with long straight necks 18th century pair rosewater sprinklersand bulbous bottoms, have a time-honoured role in festivities in much of the Islamic world. To mark the end of a wedding feast, rose water is sprinkled on the hands and faces of guests; at a Sephardi Jewish wedding guests are greeted with the same ritual. 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 rose-water sprinkler is a symbol of hospitality and, incidentally, a demonstration of social standing and affluence.

Rose water sprinklers were more often than not originally made as pairs. Today, it is a matching pair that will have enhanced value due their rarity.

Pictured right we have a particular fine example of a pair of late 18th century parcel gilt filigree rosewater sprinklers. This is actually a good example of silver filigree work not being able to be exactly identified, since these could either be Chinese or Batavian. Now part of the collection at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, they do come with the provenance of having been listed in the inventory of the Duke of Portland’s country seat at Welbeck Abbey. The early dating of these sprinkler would account for the lack of maker’s mark. Chinese Export Silver makers had not yet adopted the use of marks and Batavian silversmiths might well have been Chinese; only silversmiths who had converted to Christianity were required to mark their silver after 1730.

Hermitage rosewater sprinklersShown left, we have one of the finest examples of Chinese Export Silver rosewater sprinklers on the planet in the shape of this exquisite pair of silver gilt and enamel filigree sprinklers that are part of the toilet set of Catherine the Great. They date from the mid 18th century and were acquired in 1789 from the Winter Palace main collection; they now sit in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

They have a globular body, long neck and flower-shaped perforated mouth for sprinkling. This shape originated in the Near East and became popular in India, China and even in Europe in the 18th century but are equally in the high Rococo style that Catherine admired so much. Such vessels were made from different materials including silver, porcelain or enamel. Both bottles were modelled from a sheet of silver, gilded and dressed into thin openwork gilded filigree of different designs. On the sides the sprinklers are decorated with small branches of flowers and leaves, cut from a silver sheet, gilded and covered with blue and green enamel and paint. The branches are fixed with wires.

Catherine the Great, probably one of the most voracious collectors of the 18th century, Hermitage filigree toilet sethad an obsession of all things Chinese; one of many obsessions she maintained most of her life.

Here [right] we see the sprinklers in the context of the complete 32-object priceless toilet set. The objects of the toilet set were made in pairs and organized on a table symmetrically around the mirror. The exquisite and fragile pieces are made in such a way that we still admire the skill of the Chinese silversmiths: they look like a silver lace. The granulation is rarely used, but sometimes we can see additional decoration with gilding, enamelling, painting or with feathers and silk. The Chinese filigree has not still been surpassed in workmanship and thinness.

Apart from articles for the toilet of an aristocratic lady, there are two groups of decorative sculptures included into the set – pairs of birds on stands with branches and trees. They are brightened with paint, silk and feathers. The elaborate mirror and toilet set of Chinese make of the mid-18th century are still unique in the fineness of execution and completeness. Only a few similar individual objects or smaller groups can be found in other important collections, including  the collection of Lord Clive of Plassey [aka Clive of India] at Powis Castle, Wales and are listed in the 1774-5 inventory, some pieces of which we see on above right, including the Chinese Export Silver, silver gilt and enamel rosewater sprinkler.

Canton Bonhams rosewater sprinklerOn the left we have a single late 18th century Chinese Export Silver filigree rosewater sprinkler, made in Canton it is said for the Indian market. Very much in the high rococo style of their Catherine the Great counterparts – the globular body between two squat bulbous mounts on an arched foot, the tall slender neck rising to a terminal of stylised floral form. Silver and parcel gilt filigree decoration throughout with swirls and cellwork applied with enamel workflowers and vines.

This particular piece was sold at auction at Bonhams, London in April 2013 for $7600.

We have to contemplate whether rosewater sprinklers are, in fact, Islamic or is it a misperception due to our romantic ideal of the east and the orient. My own research indicates that it is a multi-cultural object that has its roots in ancient Persia. Which brings us back to the 10th century silversmiths in Kaifeng, because the rosewater sprinkler is also used in an ancient ceremony practiced by Sephardi Jews to mark the end of the Sabbath and the start of the new week; the Havdalah ceremony. Its name comes from the Hebrew word L’Havdel, meaning to separate or distinguish. It marks the separation of the Sabbath from the rest of the week. There are two blessings, the second is a blessing over spices. This is the only instance in Judaism when aromatics are used ritually. The use of rosewater pre-dates the more commonly used spices today by thousands of years, the container dispensing this being a rosewater sprinkler. The blessing contains the words Hebrew words borei minei besamim [who has created various fragrances]. All this would have been very familiar to the 10th century Kaifeng silversmiths.  On the right, we see a late 19th Havdalah rosewater sprinklercentury Ottoman silver rosewater sprinkler specifically made for Havdalah, because the base [below left] has 3 Hebrew letters inscribed bet; mem; bet – standing for borei minei besamim.

Havdalah rosewater sprinkler baseIt is not inconceivable, therefore, that many of the Jewish merchant families connected with the China Trade, such as the Sassoons and the Khadoories would have been using Chinese Export Silver rosewater sprinklers for Havdalah, while Maharajahs, Muslims and Hindus would have used them for other purposes, leaving Catherine the Great and Clive of India to treasure their decorative merits.

Finally, we should not forget that rosewater was and still is widely used in Arab, Persian, Indian and Sephardi Jewish cuisine and that rosewater sprinklers, apart from their ritual and decorative uses, would also have been used in the same way as condiment sets on a festive table.


GlasgowAdrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research


worthpoint_w_coin_header_logo copyAdrien von Ferscht is the Worthologist expert for Chinese Export Silver


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Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information resource for Chinese Export Silver:

His Catalogue of Chinese Export Silver 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 6-8 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. The Catalogue is available at:


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills

To Christie’s, South Kensington; Michael Backman, London; Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore; The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; The Hermitage, Amsterdam; Gerry Klapwyk, UK; Powis Castle [The National Trust]; Vanderven Oriental Art, Holland; Bonham’s, London – for use of images and data

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive which is managed by Christopher Hunter at


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