Jesuit missionaries introduced snuff to China in the second half of the 17th century. Inhaling snuff quickly became a popular habit in the higher spheres of Chinese society. As a revered material in the Chinese imperial tradition, jade naturally lent itself to the carving of snuff bottles.
Emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng avidly collected snuff bottles and considered white jade examples to be the most refined. The emperors’ patronage influenced the popularity of snuff bottles. Different jade workshops across the country responded to the appetite for these small treasures. Jade workshops located in Suzhou became especially well known for their exceptional carving and technique. Whether the bottles produced bore engraved representations, gold embedding or embossed designs, they were considered little gems to be treasured. A fine example of these sought-after bottles is an Imperial rectangular white jade snuff bottle that is carved on both sides with stylized dragons evoking the theme of longevity.
Jade snuff bottles were not always meant to be functional and some were exclusively treasured for their exquisite craftsmanship. Every detail required thoughtful design: the stopper, the miniature spoon and the hollowing process were unique to every piece of jade. The surface of the bottle could be carved with decorative motifs such as this basket-weave patterned bottle, topped with a pink stopper. Some bottles featured low relief carvings, reminiscent of subjects found in paintings such as flowers and birds, landscape scenes and literati figures. Carved in low relief and lightly incised, this bottle has a scene of an elegant scholar reclining on a stylized rock.
The most skilled carvers of jade were successful in using the natural markings and various colors inherent to the material for decorative effects. This required careful planning to design the subject matter in accordance with the natural variations in tone of the jade stone. In this example, one side of this rectangular bottle features two confronting majestic dragons. The carving through the russet brown skin emphasizes the figures to create an overall original composition.
The popularity of the foreign habit of inhaling snuff led to the use of jade and other indigenous materials and artistic techniques to produce an infinite variety of snuff bottles. The latter soon became revered not only in Chinese society but also by Western merchants and collectors who took interest in what they perceived to be an interesting adaptation of the French snuffbox.