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each carved from the same stone of brilliant emerald-green colour, finely carved and pierced with a horned dragon head on one end confronting a sinuous chilong striding amidst ruyi fungus and gourds issuing vapour on the slightly curved shaft, the dragon's finely incised mane extending onto the underside further carved with a flattened circular knob for attachment
A Magnificent Pair of Imperial Belthooks
These belthooks are exceptional for their superior quality jadeite which has been exquisitely modelled in the hands of the most skilled of craftsmen. They rank among the finest piece of jadeite ever produced for the imperial court. No other pair of jadeite belthooks of this quality has ever come on the market. The highly translucent and emerald-green colour that characterise the finest jadeite is displayed to its fullest potential through the brilliantly polished forms of both the detailed dragons and smooth surfaces of the undecorated shafts on which they stand. The flawless nature of these belthooks effortlessly embodies the stone's symbolic meaning of durability and perfection. Known in China as cuiyu, this stone was only introduced to the Qing court from the mines of Moguang following the conclusion of the campaign against Burma in 1769. The superior qualities of the stone elevated its value above that of jade and it was thus selectively employed for court items such as formal dressing and paraphernalia. During the Qianlong and Jiaqing reigns jadeite items were manufactured in Tengchong, Dali, and Kunming in Yunnan province, as well as in the workshops of the textile manufactories in Suzhou and Yangzhou, and the metal and jewel unit of the Imperial Household Workshops (Zaobanchu) inside the Forbidden City.
The outstanding workmanship of these belthooks is evident in their finely polished surfaces. The fashioning of jadeite plays a critical role in its beauty and value to a greater extent than most other gem materials. As the stone measures 6.5 to 7 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness and has a tendency to undercut, which can create a dimpled effect, it demands considerable lapidary expertise to produce exquisitely carved and well-polished pieces. One method of judging the quality of polish achieved by the craftsman is to examine the reflection of a beam of light on the surface of a carving; a finely finished piece will produce a sharp, undistorted reflection with no visible dimpling of which these belthooks are an outstanding example.
The evenness of tone and rich vivid green colour of the jadeite stone from which these belthooks have been carved is particularly fine. The evaluation of jadeite is similar to that of other gemstones in that it is based primarily on the 'Three Cs' – colour, clarity and cut. However unlike most coloured stones, the fourth C (carat weight) is less important than the dimensions of the fashioned piece. Instead two further factors are also considered; the 'Two Ts' – translucency and texture. Colour is the most important factor in assessing the value of jadeite and top-quality pieces are pure green with an even, saturated hue and purity to the stone. Additionally, the absence of fractures, natural inclusions and a high level of transparency increase the value of the stone, together with the consistency of the grain size. Typically, texture and transparency are interrelated; the finer the grain the higher the transparency.
Belthooks of this type were used to fasten the two ends of the chaodai (court belt) together at the back by slipping the hook through a similarly carved loop. Such belthooks were matched with matching plaques that adorned either side of the belt from which further accessories would suspend. An example of a belt, with a jade belthook, plaques and hanging attachments, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Qing Court. Costumes and Accessories of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 2005, pl. 166 (fig. 0). For examples of apple-green jadeite belthooks of this type, see two in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Exhibition of Ch'ing Dynasty Costume Accessories, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1986, cat. nos. 44 and 45; another pair in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Qing Court. Treasures of Imperial Court, Hong Kong, 2004, pl. 92 (fig. 1).
In its form this belthook derives from archaic jade exemplars and reflects the Qing emperors' keen interest in archaism. Compare a small example carved from pale yellow jade, attributed to the Eastern Zhou period (770-256BC), similarly caved with a dragon-head finial but of oval form with an arched body, in the British Museum, London, included in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, pl. 22:2.
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