Snuff bottles made for the Chinese market are rare and even rarer are those mounted with European watches as seen on the present highly decorative example. However, two snuff bottles with European watches, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, are illustrated in Chang Lin-sheng, Snuff Bottles in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1991, p. 88, nos. 23-24. The watches are similarly mounted on top of the stoppers and also decorated with bands of miniature pearls. The publication does not date the bottles, but a third snuff bottle with a watch and a barometer mount, from the collections of Eric Young and Joe Grimberg and attributed to circa 1890, was previously sold in our London rooms, 13th October 1987, lot 122.
From around 1582, when the first European clocks and watches were brought as tribute items to the court, Chinese emperors were fascinated with Western mechanical clockworks. The demand was such that a workshop dedicated solely to western-style clocks was established in the Palace by the Kangxi emperor. This was the beginning of a native clock making industry that was further developed under Qianlong who was an avid collector of all types of timepieces and automatons. His enthusiasm for both European and Chinese-made clocks and watches saw no limit. Snuff bottles of this type reflect a revival of European taste under the court of Empress Dowager Cixi (r. 1861-1908), and for a discussion of watches and their relationship to snuff bottles see Victor E. Graham, 'Chinese Costume Accessories as Reflected in Snuff Bottles', JICSBS, Winter 1989, pp. 11-12.
The basse-taille decorative technique seen on the present snuff bottle was first developed in Italy during the 13th century. It is an enamelling method that involves the carving or engraving of a design on a metal body. Transparent enamel is then applied that covers the entire piece. With light the design appears most impressive and luxuriously rich in colouration. This technique was adopted and perfected in China by artisans working in Guangzhou during the 18th century. For a detailed discussion of the basse-taille enamelling method see the notes to lot 1968 in this catalogue.
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