Gourd vessels like this were formed by placing a wooden mold around the young gourd and allowing the natural growth within these confines to form the shape and decoration. None of the decoration or the mark is cut by a knife, all is a mirror of the carved decoration within the mold. The earliest known use of such a technique appears to date to the Warring States period (480-221 BC). A mouthpiece for a musical instrument was found in a Chu tomb in Changsha, Hunan province. Though 16th century texts attest to the gourd-molding technique, the earliest extant examples appear to date to the reign of Kangxi.
For further interesting discussions see Wan-go Weng and Yang Boda, The Palace Museum: Peking, Treasures of the Forbidden City, p. 287, and H.M. Moss, Arts from the Scholar's Studio, nos.91 and 92. Hugh M. Moss, ibid, p.124, states, "The Kangxi and Qianlong periods mark the height of decorated gourds for the good reason that both Emperors were keen collectors. The Kangxi Emperor's enthusiasm is vouched for by his development of this humble art form in the palace, and is further endorsed by the demonstration of the Qianlong Emperor's interest, when he wrote a foreword to a poem entitled 'In Praise of a Gourd Vessel', as follows: "The manufacture of gourd vessels started in the Kangxi era when the Emperor ordered that gourds be grown into molds to produce bowls, jars, dishes, and boxes as required. The vessels are admirably natural and yet exquisite, something not possible by man alone.""
The Emperor Qianlong even presented a molded gourd snuff bottle to King George III, The National Palace Museum Monthly of Chinese Art, no.74, pp.33. The Daoist symbolism of this decoration, two deer, crane and shou characters, is enhanced by the gourd, itself a Daoist object.
For three other gourd snuff bottles see Masterpieces of Chinese Miniature Crafts in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan 1971, pl.42. For later gourd snuff bottles with Daoguang marks, see Chinese Snuff Bottles, Hong Kong Museum of Art 1977, Catalogue, col. pl.266; and Robert W.L. Kleiner, Chinese Snuff Bottles from the Collection of Mary and George Bloch, 1987, pl.201.
See also an article by Wang Shixiang entitled 'Snuff Bottles made from Gourds,' I.C.S.B.S., Journal, Winter, 1997, pp.4-13, for a fascinating discussion on gourd bottle production.
See an earlier example from the Kangxi period offered in our New York Rooms, Fine Chinese Snuff Bottles from the Holden Collection, 21 March 2000, lot 187.