T he oldest continuous form of decorative arts, jewellery is as inextricably linked to the histories and cultures of humanity as that of cave art and pottery. While pottery informs us of daily life in pre-historic cultures through its utilitarian functions, and cave art gives us a glimpse at social structures, rituals and beliefs, jewellery imparts a lens into the profound human need for self-adornment and personal expression.
On the occasion of The Victor Shaw Collection of Chinese Jades: Online Part 3 | Jewellery, we look back at the evolution of jade jewellery in China across the millennia to consider how jade, which is currently enjoying a renaissance of interest, continues to captivate hearts and imaginations. “We endeavour to reexamine these jade carvings with the eyes of a modern beholder,” says Keason Tang, Sotheby’s Head of Mid-Season Sales, Chinese Works of Art, Asia.
Practiced in all parts of the world in a great majority of cultures, jewellery has remained remarkably constant in its forms and functions. Despite encompassing a diversity of materials, techniques, and aesthetic sensibilities, there is also extensive shared affinities and influence across cultures and continents that make a global history of jewellery astonishingly complex.
Jewellery in China, Function and Style
While the history of jewellery in China is challenging to chart, the use of jade is acknowledged as a deeply ingrained ancient tradition. Personal ornaments made of jade reach as far back as Neolithic China. Mined widely in Asia and across various continents all across the world, ancient civilisations in Central and South America, such as the Mayans and Aztecs, were also producing jade jewellery. As technologies and fashions evolved, and more types of jades came to be extracted, jade jewellery in China took on new forms, treatments and usages. Europe in parallel, were developing metalworking for bronze, gold and silver jewelleries adorned with gemstone inlay and enamel. In time, as trade routes brought the exchange of taste, gold would also come to feature prominently in Chinese jewellery.
Since pre-history jade in China has been endowed with a prestigious status equal to that of gold in the West. Believed to possess special spiritual qualities, jade bracelets were worn for warding off negative energy, for bringing luck and prosperity, the latter of which is a tradition inherited through today. Jade ornaments, such as pendants which were often carved in the form of animals, were widely used in the Shang (16th century – c. 1046 BC) and early Zhou dynasties (c. 1046 – 771 BC), a time during which jade was also used as an identifier of social distinction and rank for both men and women. “Ancient jade adornments were distinguished by gender and status, yet their contemporary use knows no such bounds,” says Tang.
The most common adornment for men was the belt-hook plaque. Jade buckles, such as lots 3036 and 3062 often demonstrate the exquisite technical and artistic skills of artisans for carving jade, a laborious and extremely difficult process. For women, in addition to adornment, early jade jewellery principally served a practical function, thus was most often found in the form of hairpins and combs as seen in present lots such as lots 3042 and 3044. By the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), these hair ornaments became increasingly delicate and intricate, incorporating precious metals and gemstones. Jade earrings were also found to have been worn since the early periods, however necklaces and other jewellery for the body were far and few as the richly colourful and elaborate pattern of dress and costume in those days left little place on the body for further embellishment. “Round jade hairpins were worn by men,” explains Tang. “While openwork phoenix-patterned belt ornaments were a common decorative element for Ming dynasty Han scholar-gentry.”
Through the Tang (618 – 907) and Song dynasties (960 – 1279) jade became more widespread, but it was under the Ming dynasty that jade jewellery became more sophisticated. Ornaments and jewellery of the Ming dynasty used openwork techniques and high relief carving with extensive under-cutting, and expanded the oeuvre of decorative motifs beyond animals, birds and flowers to incorporate undulating or coiled dragons and other mythical references such as exemplified by lot 3033 featuring a reticulated white jade ‘phoenix’ belt buckle from the Yuan-Ming dynasty and lot 3034 of a Ming dynasty ‘chilong’ plaque. By the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911), jade jewellery was widespread outside of the Imperial court; only jadeite imported from Myanmar was restricted for the Emperor and Imperial court’s pleasure.
The changing sophistication of jade jewellery reflects the advancements of China over the millennia, yet perhaps what is so profoundly fascinating is how the qualities of jade that captivated Emperors and Chinese society at large would also provide the very inspiration jewellers in the West needed in the first decades of the 20th century. Europe found itself recovering from a war that had immensely changed the role of women in society, and with that, the fashion changed. A new style emerged, favouring geometric and linear designs, bold forms, and inspiration from cultures of the exotic East. Stemming from the rejection of what was perceived as the excesses of Art Nouveau, the spirit of chinoiserie was revived and a fascination towards Chinese aesthetics emerged among Parisian connoisseurs and designers.
Jewellery featured prominently at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, the namesake of Art Deco. Among those that pioneered this stylistic shift in the decorative arts was Cartier, whose pieces either incorporated existing carved jades, or brought newly polished jades to life. A belt hook for example might find itself mounted as a brooch, or a pair of bi transformed into drop earrings. Jade was also crafted from its raw mineral state, fashioned into cigarette cases, rings, lorgnette, and more; bringing the fascination of the Chinese style and qualities of jade into the heart of the modern art movement.
A history of jewellery in China is thus one that is periodically intertwined with the West, brimming with cross-cultural influences, at the centre of which is jade. Just as gemstones and gold became core to the shifting tastes of China, the most profound spiritual values of jade that are fundamental to Chinese art became a cornerstone to modern Western fashions. As with all artistic progression, we seek inspiration from the past in order to find advancement. To move beyond what came before, artists and designers return to the vogue of yesteryear.
Even within the evolving fashions within China along, there is a long history of reinvention. “Jade artifacts from preceding dynasties were often repurposed as adornments in Ming and Qing clothing, and the jade carvings from the Jin and Yuan dynasties were frequently refashioned as covers for incense burners in the middle and late Ming period.” Tang adds, “Delicate jade flowers, once thought to be a Qing dynasty creation, can actually be traced back to the Jin and Yuan period, cherished and preserved through the ages.”
Today, jade finds itself once more at the centre of a revival, an effort to be the next progression in a contemporary movement that had first sought to shed the extravagances of modern art, but now takes the very same profound values that has inspired China and Europe for centuries to new taste. Jade jewellery need not find itself shackled by a sense of historical burden, rather this very history is what brings this crown jewel of Asia contemporary relevance.