7 Types Of Ancient Chinese Jewelry And Meanings

7 Types Of Ancient Chinese Jewelry And Meanings

Traditional Chinese jewelry craftsmanship is vast and profound, with over 7,000 years of development in jade carving, the flower thread technique that began in the Shang Dynasty, the Jingtailan technique that was popular during the Ming and Jingtai periods, and so on. From the ancient treasures passed down by ancestors, we can fully appreciate these rich and diverse, profound handcraft techniques, which are undoubtedly the best witness to the splendid civilization of the Chinese nation and the ingenuity of Chinese jewelry masters.


The grandest gold and silver art: enamel

Enamel, also known as "silver blue" or "silver enamel," is an art form that combines metal casting with point blue coloring and is mainly used in silver jewelry. It uses silver as the base and uses silver flower thread to pinch out patterns on the base, then fills the transparent or translucent vitreous material onto the pattern on the silver base, and is finally fired at a low temperature of about 500–600 degrees Celsius. It was invented by Italian craftsmen at the end of the 13th century, and colorful transparent enamelware appeared in Paris, France, in the 14th century. After being introduced to China, it flourished in the Qing Dynasty.


Contemporary artisans engaged in the enamel craft have boldly innovated traditional craftsmanship. On a silver jewelry piece, they integrate techniques such as pinching thread, porcelain white point, enamel painting, and silver blue point, creating a unique collection of artworks. Enamel is not only more colorful than Jingtai but also has significant differences in craftsmanship. Enamel craftsmanship first uses techniques such as grinding, hooking and lifting, hollowing, and welding to create patterns on the silver base and then applies point blue and enamel to the pattern, finally forming a brightly colored, transparent silver blue. You may not know that the Nine Dragon Wall in Beihai and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven are also masterpieces of enamel. The different colored dragons on the Nine Dragon Wall are the perfect presentation of the unique artistic effects of the enamel technique.


In northern China, the flower thread and enamel technique has been used in the production of various jewelry and three-dimensional silver ornaments. The enamel technique, which applies a layer of multicolored glaze to silverware, injects new vitality into ancient jewelry.


The Most Complex Art Form: Cloisonne


The term "Cloisonne" first appeared in the archives of the Qing Palace Office. In the sixth year of the Qing Dynasty (1728), the "Accounts of Completed Works" recorded: "On the fifth day of May, according to the report from the Yuanmingyuan Palace, on the fourth day of this month, the associate officer of Prince Yi, Haiwang, presented a set of works that had been ordered by the emperor:... the cloisonne gourd-shaped horse coat vase with a pattern of immortal birthday wishes is too vulgar, and the flower basket spring abundance is not good. The cloisonne peony basin is too small, and the peacock feathers are not good, so it should be remade. The cloisonne vase imitating Jingtai blue is not good. Respect this order." This record refers to the enamel products made during the imitation of the Jingtai blue period as "Jingtai blue enamel", which is the earliest written record of the term "cloisonne.".


There is no unified answer about the origin of cloisonne in the archaeological field. One view is that Cloisonne was born in the Tang Dynasty; another says that during the Western Expedition of Kublai Khan in the Yuan Dynasty, it was introduced to China from West Asia and Arabia and became popular in Yunnan before it was favored by the people in the capital and spread to the Central Plains. The Xuande period of the Ming Dynasty was the pinnacle of Cloisonne craftsmanship in China. It prevailed during the Jingtai period of the Ming Dynasty and was dominated by blue materials, hence the term "Jingtai blue."


Cloisonne, also known as "copper wire enamel", involves shaping various patterns and designs on a copper base and then filling the patterns with colorful enamel. It is then fired, polished, and gold-plated. The production process of Cloisonne is a comprehensive art that combines painting, craftsmanship, carving, inlaying, metallurgy, glass melting, and other technologies. Its manufacturing process is intricate and complex, requiring more than 10 procedures such as design, molding, wire forming, enamel filling, firing, polishing, and gold plating. Cloisonne artworks in ancient times were exclusively for the enjoyment of the imperial court and nobility. It was a symbol of power and status. In the past imperial palace of the Forbidden City and the royal garden of the Summer Palace, we can still see a few precious Cloisonne artworks left behind.


Nowadays, the development of cloisonne art has undergone changes with the times and made great progress. It insists on the characteristics of completely handmade production while incorporating modern fashion elements into its designs, making it more loved by people all over the world. Cloisonne is one of China's most traditional export handicrafts.


(The Cloisonne process is similar to firing enamel, but due to the different composition of the enamel, the "blue" formed by Cloisonne does not have the watercolor-like transparency of fired enamel.)


The oldest carving technique in history is jade carving.


Jade carving is one of the oldest carving techniques in China. Jade, after being processed and carved, becomes exquisite handicrafts known as jade carvings. During the production process, artisans meticulously design and refine the jade based on its natural color and shape, creating beautiful and delicate works of art.


Contemporary jade carving in China is spread throughout many provinces, with representative regions including Beijing, Shanghai, Xinjiang, Yangzhou, and Suzhou in Jiangsu, Nanyang in Henan, Guangdong, Yunnan, Liaoning, Shaanxi, and Qinghai. The jade carvings are mainly made into jewelry, accessories, playthings, and ornaments. With the development of the economy, wearing and appreciating jade carvings have become fashionable again. Moreover, as the price of jade materials continues to rise year by year, exquisite jade ornaments are becoming increasingly valuable.


Archaeologists have long believed that jade culture, including jade rings and beads, appeared in China during the Hemudu culture period 5,000 years ago, making it the oldest jade culture in human history. However, recently it was discovered that a chopping tool made from Xiuyan jade, dating back more than 12,000 years, was unearthed from a small isolated mountain in Haicheng, Anshan, Liaoning Province. This indicates that China's earliest jade objects were initially created through a gradual process of stone cutting, grinding, and polishing, similar to the process of making stone tools. The emergence of this jade object only shows that more than 10,000 years ago, people in China had already discovered the characteristics, beautiful colors, and toughness of jade and had separated it from the main material of stone to create specific tools.


Jade carving is a unique skill in China, with a long history of development and distinct characteristics of each era. Different dynasties have their own styles and features in jade carving.


The Most Magnificent Court Art: Filigree Inlay


Filigree inlay, also known as fine gold craftsmanship and wire weaving, originated from the gold and silver misalignment craftsmanship in the spring and autumn periods and the Warring States period. It flourished in the Western Han Dynasty with the popularity of small gold and silver headwear and reached a high level of artistic achievement in the Ming Dynasty. Later, it was honored as one of the eight wonders of Yanjing.


Filigree inlay is a traditional Chinese handicraft that uses gold, silver, copper, and other materials drawn into fine wires and then shaped through processes such as pushing, pinching, and weaving. It is an exquisite and complex art that has always been used in the royal court, combining the techniques of "filigree" and "inlay". It uses gold, silver, and copper as raw materials and employs traditional techniques such as pinching, filling, assembling, welding, weaving, and stacking, as well as carving, engraving, hammering, forging, and inlaying, to make metal sheets into grooves and then fix pearls, crystals, white jade, and jadeite on gold and silver jewelry from different angles according to the needs of the craftsmen's design, creating a creative composition. It can be shaped independently and can also be combined with creativity. Moreover, it often uses the technique of point-setting to achieve a magnificent effect.


Filigree inlay is one of the traditional crafts of China's luxury goods and has been listed as a national-level intangible cultural heritage by the Ministry of Culture.


Today, only a very small number of filigree inlay technicians work independently or in small workshops to produce filigree inlay jewelry, and the outlook is not very optimistic.


The Most Traditional Metal Carving Art: Engraving


Engraving, a traditional Chinese craft, has a history that dates back earlier than that of filigree. It evolved with the techniques of carving jade, bone, and horn and first appeared on Shang Dynasty bronze vessels. Engraved works use the ductility of metal materials such as gold, silver, and copper to create patterns on metal by engraving or relief carving. They can be divided into flat and three-dimensional forms, with the former being mounted on some vessels or hung up for appreciation, while the latter is mostly used as practical utensils. There are many engraving techniques that make the patterns on ancient and modern metalware rich and colorful.


The process of engraving is relatively complex and requires high technical proficiency. Craftsmen need to have a solid foundation in painting and sculpture, as well as a variety of professional skills such as metalworking, sheet metal work, casting, and welding. They also need to have a certain understanding and appreciation of traditional culture. In addition to good technique, the operator must also be able to make their own engraving tools according to the needs of the object being worked on. Historically, engraving was passed down from master to apprentice through oral transmission, and now there are few people who can master this art.


The most "vibrant" handicraft: Dian Cui


Dian Cui is a traditional craft in ancient jewelry making that is often combined with the flower wire technique. Its history can be traced back to the Warring States period, and it reached its peak during the Qianlong period of the Qing Dynasty. The first step in the Dian Cui process is to collect Cui feathers, which are the colorful feathers of a Cui bird. The feathers are then carefully set into a metal base made of gold or gilded metal to create various types of jewelry and decorative items. It is said that Cui feathers must be plucked from live Cui birds to ensure their bright and vibrant colors. Depending on the location and technique used, Cui feathers can display different colors such as banana yellow, lake green, and deep blue. The best Cui feathers for Dian Cui are the Cui blue and snow cyan, and the natural texture and iridescence of the feathers make the final product rich, varied, magnificent, and lively.


As a traditional Chinese gold and silver jewelry-making craft, Dian Cui is almost lost due to its complex production process, the difficulty of preserving finished products, and the rare and scarce Cui bird feathers used. The demands of the modern age for environmental protection have also contributed to its decline. Most of the Dian Cui jewelry seen today is a precious work passed down from the Qing Dynasty.


The finest gold and silver carving and inlaying craft: Jin Yin Cuo


Jin Yin Cuo is one of the traditional metalworking decorative techniques in ancient China. It first appeared in the Bronze Age of the Shang and Zhou dynasties and was mainly used to decorate various practical objects, such as bronze vessels, chariots and horses, and weapons, with exquisite patterns. The technique involves drawing a delicate pattern on the surface of an object and chiseling out grooves along the lines of the pattern. Then, pure gold or silver wire is pulled into thin threads or pressed into thin sheets and inlaid into the grooves. Finally, the surface is polished to a smooth, shiny finish. Jin Yin Cuo is a combination of the copper and iron cultures because it was impossible to carve and inlay fine designs on bronze objects without the use of hard iron tools. With the decline of the Bronze Age, the craft of Jin Yin Cuo was lost for a period of time. However, when these ancient works of Jin Yin Cuo were rediscovered, the whole world was amazed by the exquisite art, and this led to the creation of Jin Yin Cuo artworks made from more materials such as jade, stone, and wood. Today, thanks to the continuous efforts of contemporary master craftsmen, the lost craft of Jin Yin Cuo has been fully restored.


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