Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Chinese Silver Vinaigrettes

A typical Chinese vinaigrette, enlarged to show detail.

Chinese artists often achieved delightful effects when working in miniature. One of my favorite collections of Chinese objects is the charming tiny vinaigrettes made of delicate filigree. These small openwork containers, filled with perfumed inserts, were meant to hang on the clothes when walking, rendering surrounding odors less offensive. Sizes vary, but a typical rectangular one will be about 1.5 inches long.

It is difficult to know what name to call these—vinaigrette, pomander, sachet, or censer. Censers are for burning incense, and typically of a larger size. Sachets are usually made of cloth, and in fact their Chinese equivalent is very common. Pomander perhaps is the closest, but the name can refer to the perfume itself, and often pomanders are spherical or larger than personal size.

I prefer the term vinaigrette because these most closely resemble the Western silver vinaigrettes which were used for a similar purpose. These usually contained ammonia salts and possibly aromatic vinegars in addition to perfume, so they were kept closed and only used as needed to revive the wearer in days when fainting spells as well as horrid odors were common. The Chinese version contained only perfume and they were made of an openwork material so the perfume could diffuse itself around the person, or could be lifted for more concentrated inhaling.

This very nice 1827 example of an English vinaigrette by John Betteridge of Birmingham, from Gilai Collectibles shows the object from several angles.

Here is another typical English vinaigrette from 1844-5 by William and Edward Turnpenny, also of Birmingham, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In general, Chinese silver vinaigrettes are made in two halves, which somehow hinge or fit together in order to contain the perfumed material, ordinarily a small pad made of cloth which can be charged with perfume or fragrant oil, whose scent can escape through the fine piercings. Some are made as a complete box, which can be opened at the top or by a sliding panel at the side. Since these sliding panels weren’t anchored to the main body, often they are missing today.

This is the reverse side of the vinaigrette at the top of the post.
A rare survival of the original fragrance packet, which can be seen through the filigree as a red object.
A more elaborate round example with blue enameling and five bats surrounding a longevity symbol. You can see where more ornaments were once attached.

A rather plain example, except that the filigree is exceptionally well planned.

Most of the decoration on Chinese vinaigrettes falls into two categories—either floral/natural scenes, or vignettes from Chinese history and mythology. Either of these patterns allows for a lot of detail in the decoration, as well as small recessed spaces that can be punched or cut out for the filigree.

A naturalistic pattern with a deer among foliage.

A rather crude example, with poorly cut filigree and minimal repousse, although a nicely composed design.

Usually I am unclear which story is being represented, but this is definitely the Legend of the White Snake, shown here in the Leifeng Pagoda.

A nicely composed scene with three bearded gods.

A pattern reminiscent of Art Nouveau, with flowers and an insect.

Reverse of the above, with slightly surreal round flowers—possibly chrysanthemums or roses?

Virtually all Chinese vinaigrettes were meant to hang from the clothing. Usually the top and bottom panels were pierced to allow attachment of chains or cords so they could be hung from the belt with an array of other lucky charms and useful objects such as needle cases or seal holders.

However, many of the silver ones were used as the centerpieces for chatelaines, which were small assortments of useful objects bound together into one piece of jewelry, kind of like an early concept of the Swiss Army knife. Western chatelaines contained keys, pencils, notebooks, pin-cushions, watches, magnifying glasses, and so forth and were used by women and pinned on the chest or waist like a brooch. Chinese chatelaines, on the other hand, contained personal implements like tweezers, ear-picks, tongue scrapers, nail cleaners, etc. and were likely suspended from the belt like the other hanging charms.

It is difficult to photograph chatelaines, showing both the long chain sections and the delicate workmanship of the implements and ornaments. This simple example has three tools--an ear pick, tweezers, and a nail pick.

This shows more detail of how a vinaigrette was used as the center of a chatelaine, with suspension chain above and three tools hanging below.

This more elaborate chatelaine has a spreader piece below the vinaigrette, and five tools: nail pick, knife, tongue scraper, tweezers. and ear pick.
A vase of flowers form the central motif here, and the bell shows how ornaments other than tools could be attached to a chatelaine.

Chinese vinaigrettes come in a large variety of shapes. My favorites are the rectangular ones, but they can be found in circular, cylindrical, spherical, octagonal, cartouche, and irregular shapes, among many others. They are also sometimes made as articulated fish or insects, with moving parts, but those I have seen of this type always seemed to be of recent manufacture. The round ones were particularly well suited to be used in chatelaines, and in slightly larger sizes could be made into hatpins or other jewelry.
An unusual key-hole shaped example, heavy for its size.

An octagonal silver vinaigrette.

Reverse of the above.

These round vinaigrettes are typically smaller, about one inch in diameter, and the attachment loops for chains, tools, or other ornaments are visible.

I had made a display of these silver vinaigrettes in my apartment, but Taipei’s polluted and corrosive are tarnished them a difficult-to-remove black, so I had to put them away. There are many small collectibles here, but vinaigrettes particularly appeal to me, which is ironic since I cannot tolerate (and am perhaps allergic to) perfume. There is so much variety that it is difficult to pick just one, but let me know if you have a favorite example or type.

Note: All of the Chinese vinaigrettes shown (except for the English examples) are in the collection of the author, as are the above photos.


  1. LOVE WHAT I AM SEEING.........will be back to READ!

    1. Hello Contessa, Glad you like them--they are a treat to look at! --Jim

  2. I have learned a lot and enjoyed it Jim! But may i ask if snuff boxes which are still popular here in auctions - did they double up as vinaigrettes?

    1. Hello CSW, Great question--I shouldn't have skimped on background material. A Western vinaigrette can be turned into a snuffbox simply by removing the grill (or even leaving it in and having to do a little extra work to lift the grille to get to the snuff). A snuffbox, however, to be used as a vinaigrette would need to go back to the maker to have a grille made and hinged on, and the sponge inserted for the perfumed vinegar.

      The Chinese occasionally used boxes for snuff, but mostly they used the famous Chinese snuff bottles, the mainstay of so many Asian antiques sales! --Jim

  3. Hello Jim - I am very familiar with the English vinaigrettes, but didn't realise that similar ones were also used by the Chinese. Being interested in the Art Nouveau period I am attracted to that one especially the side with the insect and what looks like a sunflower. It is interesting too that they also had chatelaines although for more personal use than the domestic ones found here - I don't think that the ear picks are a very sensible idea!

    1. Hello Rosemary, I knew that you would be familiar with the English models. The tradition for Chinese vinaigrettes lasted longer, so that Art Nouveau and Art Deco versions can be found, even with all the traditional scenes and decoration.

      Ear picks are still popular here, and can be bought everywhere. I love the local people, but from a Western perspective they do have some strange notions of personal hygiene, and what is appropriate in public! If you meant that they might be dangerous, I wholly agree with you there also. --Jim

  4. Hello Jim,

    This is a fascinating collection and I enjoyed learning about Chinese vinaigrettes. I have seen several English examples, and have been tempted to splurge on a Georgian example, but I've yet to do so. Perhaps your beautiful collection will just tip me over the temptation line.

    By the way, my favorite was the one described as "rather plain". Do you know its age?

    Have you tried to rid your pieces of tarnish using a silver dip product? I've never tried dips but I don't think I own anything as intricately filigreed as your beautiful collection so good ol' fashioned silver polish does the trick.

    1. Hello CD, I too have been tempted by the Georgian vinaigrettes, but hesitated and now the prices have gone up--they would have been a good investment!

      Incidentally, I don't think that I have ever seen an entirely plain example, although that could be quite handsome. The one shown has three carnelian pendants instead of chatelaine tools--it is rather on the small side.

      I would not use silver dips on these; the chemicals are too harsh and would strip all patina. If it worked at all, the pieces would come out looking all white, and with an unnatural, etched surface. The three-gods one looks like it might have been dipped a while ago--though I'd have to examine it to be sure. Since I know you have much beautiful silver, I am appending this warning link about silver dips. --Jim

    2. Thanks for the link Jim. I shall take heed of the advice.

      Also, I meant to ask, is an ear pick a common tool found on these vinaigrattes, or could it possible be a tooth pick? Curious minds and all that.

    3. Hi again, If there is a small spoon or scoop on the end, it is an ear pick or ear scoop, which are still very common here--you can buy them anywhere. If the end is straight and pointed, it could be either a nail tool or a tooth pick. Most of the simpler chatelaines have one ear pick, one pointed tool, and a tweezers. --Jim

  5. oohhhh now I am in love! Silver-and-gold art is my passion and vinaigrette were the most useful and decorative silver object around any home. It didn't matter how infrequently people showered or how smelly their clothes became.

    The Chinese vinaigrettes contained perfume and they were made of an openwork material, as you said, so the perfume could waft around. The Betteridge of Birmingham example is more finely designed, but it is enclosed in a sealed box.

    1. Hello Hels, I am glad you like these vinaigrettes--I know that you are partial to silver, but wait and see what I have in store for the sequel. I don't have any gold vinaigrettes, although I do have a vermeil one. Precious materials lend themselves to exquisite work.

      I don't know what the mixture in Western vinaigrettes smelled like, but it seems likely that however perfumed, there was a pungent "reviving" element to it that might not have been agreeable all of the time, thus the closable format. --Jim

  6. 我沒看過這種銀製首飾。I am surprised at your broad and deep interest in the Chinese culture. You should be an executive researcher of NPM and teach younger generations the culture. I was wondering, judging from peculiar designs, some of your collections were made by minority races living in south and west China.

    1. Hello RTC, There are many kinds of hanging ornaments (吊飾)that I like to collect; vinaigrettes are among the most special. You are right that many antiques have come from southern and rural China, mostly via Hong Kong. Sometimes there is a folk-art-like quality to certain pieces. --Jim

  7. The mountain air here in Hokkaido, and too many aching muscles from too much activity thereon precludes me from making any meaningful comments, except that I enjoyed reading about these beautiful pieces of Chinese silver. I have two pieces, but I'm not entirely sure what they're for. I must confess to using silver dip, and they seem none the worse for wear, but they don't have enamel.

    Back to the heat of Bangkok tomorrow night, but after a rather protracted day of travel; at least in the sharp end, which might mitigate the worst of these experiences. Actually that doesn't really do it, does it?!

    1. Hello Columnist, I believe the dictum that it's nice to get away, but also nice to get back home. Of course, I share with you the problem of coming back to a blazing hot oven when I visit the U.S., but even then I like to get back to my own apartment and my own things.

      I am intrigued about your silver pieces. If you send a photo (or put on your blog) I might have some clue, but as we have seen, Asian art abounds with mystery objects! --Jim

  8. These are exquisite and fascinating. My grandparents smuggled a number of valuable objects out of Shanghai in 1949 en route to Taiwan. My grandmother actually stowed items within the linings of her silk jackets while my grandfather continued to work for Chang Kai Shek's provisional government. However I have never seen a vinaigrette in the items that have been passed down in the family. Chinese silver serving pieces and ivory carvings, yes, but vinaigrettes no. Thank you for sharing.
    Best, KL Gaylin

    1. Hello KL Gaylin, I can imagine the kinds of small treasures that were available in 1949 for smuggling. Those were tumultuous times indeed, both on the mainland and here in Taiwan. Your family is lucky to still have those pieces--I am sure that they are beautiful. Perhaps these vinaigrettes were not worth too much back then, although some of them were made from ivory and other precious materials. --Jim

  9. These are charming, and so interesting. I have never seen them before. A wonderful collection--I'm sorry you can't leave them out.

    1. Hello Jennifer, I had a good time searching these out--they don't even have a single Chinese name which everyone recognizes. The tarnish that got on them was very black and difficult to remove--and anyway, I don't like them overpolished. With old silver, it is always a difficult question whether to polish or leave the patina, but I am usually on the side of patina, except for things that will be used with food. --Jim

  10. Dearest Jim,
    So glad I finally can catch up on blog reading... Did finish my 2nd mega task of crocheting the 50-hour Fleur de Lys curtain. It is hanging since Thursday and yesterday our choir did perform at the Joint Civic Luncheon for St. Patrick's for a crowd of some 600. So that made me feel happy for mission accomplished.
    Oh, what an interesting collection of antique Chinese silver vinaigrettes you got here. My favorite is in the final photo, middle row to the left!
    Funny, in Dutch these are called Loderein or Lodderein, both deriving from the French l'eau de reine (water of the king). They were used in the 18th and 19th century by men and women in The Netherlands. You can find some here:
    Zilveren doosjes
    Wish those boxes could tell the stories of their human owners... Quite interesting from ages back.
    Sending you hugs,

    1. Hello Mariette, I am impressed that you did that enormous crocheting task so soon after the first one--your fingers must be worn out!

      The vinaigrette you picked is one of my favorites, and perhaps the most substantial of the round ones--it even has a hallmark inside.

      Thank you for letting us know the interesting information about their Dutch name, which is very appropriate. I looked on that Dutch silver site, and they do have some beautiful objects.

      You are right about the stories these vinaigrettes could tell, especially since they were carried around with the owner, not set in a drawer or on a table most of the time.

      Have a good weekend, Jim


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