Meta-Museum – Chinese Export Silver: The Art of Filigree


Jewish Sephardi silversmiths took their technique of filigree work with them when they were expelled from Spain. The same was true of the Huguenots in 17th-century France. We know that Jewish silversmiths operated in China from very early on and surprisingly Jewish Chinese populations exist to the present day. These master craftsmen dispersed all over Europe and into Asia, combining their own familiar filigree methods with local stylistic forms. Many of these silversmiths found their way to Sassania [known to its inhabitants as Ērān – hence modern day Iran], where they produced silver items that came into China along the Silk Road during the Tang dynasty.

The great geographical discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries also played an important part in the creation of a universal style of filigree. 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.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, there were several major centres where articles of filigree silver were produced, much of it in southern China, in Canton and Macao, as well as in the regions of Southeast Asia where there were cities open to trade with Europe and settlements of Chinese silver masters, as for example in Manila in the Philippines or in Batavia [modern day Jakarta] on the island of Java.

Chinese filigree work was highly skillful and very popular. Following the opening of sea routes to India and the countries of the Orient and the creation of East India trading companies, it became fashionable in Europe, including Russia, to own exotic oriental art works and materials. Very fine silver filigree, especially that made by Chinese silversmiths, delighted the European great and the good.

Toilet sets and caskets, candlesticks and perfume bottles, table decorations and small boxes for cosmetics were all purchased for the first museum collections in Europe, for the collections of oddities held by royal families, the treasure rooms of churches, and the private homes of wealthy Europeans. The precious rarities served as symbols of authority, as objects for collecting and as diplomatic gifts. The very delicate silver filigree, that was ordered for representational purposes and to decorate interiors, became the privilege of wealthy and distinguished owners both in the Orient and in Europe. Many of the palaces around Europe had their own “Cabinets of Filigree” at the end of the 17th and early 18th centuries: this was true of Louis 14th’s Versailles, Friedrich I Wilhelm’s Berlin, and in the London palace of Queen Charlotte. But it was Catherine the Great that had an insatiable yearning for all things Chinese, with silver filigree being a favourite of hers; the current important collection in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg attests to this.

As the best of Chinese Export Silver filigree items were created in the 18th century, most lack any maker’s mark; marks becoming the norm in the early 19th century onwards.

Here we have mid 18th century Chinese Export Silver filigree box decorated overall with silver filigree in tight scroll foliate designs, filled with green and blue enamels.

The box is 8 cm high, 14 cm wide and 8.5 cm deep and was sold at auction at Christie’s, Amsterdam in 2008 for €10,000

Here we have a rather exquisite late 18th century Chinese Export Silver lidded vase and stand decorated with filigree flowers and foliage, the border applied with band of flowers and foliage, the shaped circular stand and domed cover with similar decoration

The vase is 21.5 cm high and weighs 460gm. It was sold in 2010 at Christie’s, London for £10,500

While the majority of filigree items produced in the latter part of the Chinese Export Silver period failed to attain the same quality of workmanship, one maker seems to have bucked that trend. The Cantonese maker “YKC” operated for some 20 years creating almost exclusively card cases. YKC is a somewhat enigmatic maker; no documentation has yet been found to tell us who or what YKC stands for, but we do know Canton was the manufacturing base and circa 1880-1900 is the period.

Here we have a fine example of a silver gilt YKC card case. It is typical of the high quality of filigree work YKC created.

This particular box is to be found at the well-respected London antique dealer Silverman

On the other side of the coin, here [right] we
have a late 19th century/early 20th century Chinese Export Silver filigree case by an unknown maker which, sadly, is more typical of the quality produced at this time – one could say it demonstrates how filigree should not even be attempted if finesse and master craftsmanship is lacking.


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