Carved Chalcedony Agate Snuff Bottles
Gift from Bill Burd
1750-1850, Qing Dynasty
Snuff, a form of powdered tobacco leaves mixed with aromatics, was introduced to China by way of Portuguese trade routes running from South America to Macau in the late sixteenth century. The imperial court accepted boxes of snuff from Portuguese Jesuit missionaries as gifts of a rare medicinal nature, although China's humid climate quickly determined that a more stable form of storage was needed to prevent substance deterioration. Thus, snuff came to be stored in existing medicinal bottles with cork stoppers to keep out moisture and alongside small spoons for quick and simple ingestion.
Over the next few centuries, as snuff usage evolved into a popular recreational pastime across all levels of Chinese society, snuff bottle production gradually shifted from purely functional designs to include aesthetic appeal. Materials and crafting methods ranged from painted porcelain, glass, and enamel to carved mineral stones, as well as unconventional methods using unusual organic substances, such as growing gourds inside bottle molds. Given the difficulty of the materials and the available hand tools of that time, snuff bottles required great patience and manual skill to create.
The bottles on display here have been carved out of agate and depict various images of man, immortals, flora, and fauna, giving the illusion of painted designs through the expert manipulation of the mineral's different colored surface layers ("skin"). Although the fall of the Qing dynasty marked the gradual decline of snuff bottle usage and production, these miniature artifacts continue to represent the beauty of traditional Chinese art in a historical context.
Guide written by Michelle Guo, 2023
Museum of Asian Art
Heritage Museum of Asian Art is a non-profit organization with IRS 501 (c) (3) tax exempt status.