Chinese Making Processes

Cloisonné (Jingtailan)

Cloisonné is the name used to describe the process of enamelling or decorating metalwork. The name derives from the French for ‘compartments’ – ‘cloisons’, as Cloisonné is created by soldering wire onto a metal surface in a pattern, and filling the ‘compartments’ made by the wire with vitreous enamel. Cloisonné first developed in Ancient Egyptian Jewellery and body adornment, where they would use a mix of cut gemstones, glass and enamel.  This technique was very popular and through trading it gradually moved around europe, the Anglo-saxon, Roman and Byzantium empires, Russia, and eventually, in the 14th Century it arrived in China.

Cloisonné Making Process

The Chinese name for Cloisonné, ‘Jingtailan’ refers to the Jingtai Emperor during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The most valued pieces of Chinese Cloisonné are thought to have come from this era, although the earliest pieces date back to the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1425-1435). By the reign of Jingtai, the Chinese had developed very advanced skills in Cloisonné, and therefore created some extremely detailed and beautiful pieces.

Chinese Cloisonné Ornamentation

The Chinese have developed a very distinct style of Cloisonné, and although they did not invent the technique, they appear to be the most famous for it. They often use this technique for pots, vases and ornaments, but it is also used to make pendants and beads for Jewellery. Chinese Cloisonné designs, like many other pieces of Chinese art, are often religious or images of good luck and prosperity. Their designs commonly feature images of winged birds, the Dragon and the Phoenix, which were all thought to be symbols of good virtue. Cloisonné in China is full of bright colours and beautiful patterns and motifs. It is often further decorated with gold and brass sculpture, which gives an extremely rich and majestic look to each piece. (As seen below)

Champion Vase from 18th Century (GW Vincent Smith Gallery, Massachusetts)
Cloisonné and Chinoiserie
In the 18th Century, Chinoiserie became a very popular fashion in Western countries. Through trading and ‘The Silk Road’, many pieces of Chinese furniture, art, fabrics and ornaments found themselves in the West. The rich, and mysterious appearance of these Eastern treasures quickly became very popular, and was in high demand not only from the higher class, but also the middle classes of the Western countries of Europe. Hense, Chinoiserie was developed. The Europeans picked up several techniques which would mirror that of the Chinese. An example of this is ‘Japanning’. A somewhat ignorant name used to describe the process of Chinese style laquerwork. And of course, another example is Cloisonné. This was a very popular technique in the Chinoiserie era, as it looked archetypally Chinese. Its appearance looked expensive and exotic, which is what people wanted.

Jade Carving (Yu)

Soft, smooth and glossy. It appeared to them like benevolence; fine, compact and strong – like intelligence”

Attributed to Confucius (551-479 BC)

The process of Jade carving is originally done by drawing a bow string back and forth to propel a drill, while adding water and abrasive to the stone. Jade is extremely difficult to carve and is sculpted by repetitively cutting, grinding and polishing the stone. It also a very expensive material to work with, and jade carvers must be careful not to waste it. They have to think of ways to make a beautiful design while keeping the carving to a minimum. The way Jade is carved is often symbolic. When carved into a pig, it represents prosperity, when it is in the shape of a disk, it represented Heaven, and when a piece of Jade is enclosed in a square, it represents the Earth.

Chinese Jade Sculptures

Carved Jade is thought to have become popular in China over 7000 years ago, when it was used for weaponry and ornaments. According to the Chinese ‘creation’ story, after man was created, he wandered the Earth with nothing to protect him from wild animals. A storm took pity on him and forged a rainbow into two Jade axes, which it tossed to the Earth for man to find and protect himself with. Since the beginning of Chinese history, Jade has been a prominent symbol of wealth, power, security, good health and strength.

An ancient Chinese proverb states, “You can out a price on Gold, but Jade is priceless”.

According to legend, only Emperors were allowed to posess carved Jade, and it is often referred to by the Chinese as ‘the Stone of Heaven’. A piece of Jade was sometimes placed on the tongue of a dead person to represent ressurection. To the Chinese, Jade is a majestic and divine stone.

Jade was commonly used to adorn the body.  During the Han Dynasty, royal members were buried in suits made of Jade. The suit was made up of several square Jade plates, which were woven together with wire, ribbon or silk.

Jade Burial Suit – Han Dynasty

Nowadays, a common trinket sold to tourists in Chinese markets is a faux-jade Buddha Pendant. Although the Chinese still treasure Jade, it is becoming less fashionable and more commercialised.

“But jade carving is very slow, and it takes a long time to sell, because the market for jade carving is narrow: just a few collectors here and in Japan and America.” 

Quote from a Jade Craftsman in an interview with the Smithsonian.

Buddha Pendant

Jewellery and traditional beliefs

Today, China is known for being one of the largest producers of pearls. It is a very ancient artistic tradition, but China began to use precious metals relatively late. Rare references for ornaments date from the Tang period (618-906). At the beginning of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese showed great interest in jewellery influenced by Persia and India. Only toward of the end of the 11th century, we can see local characteristics. The most important type of jewel was worn on the head like tiaras and diadems. We can see many influences in Chinese jewels from the Himalaya region (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan), where the traditional skills were trekked from village to village, tribe to tribe. The jewellery traditions of the Far East reflect this immense environmental, cultural and economic diversity. However, many jewellery traditions were stopped during the time of communism, where personal adornment was severely criticised by the government. Only official badges and medals were authorized, in order to show one’s pride and loyalty to the party. Since the end of Mao Tse Tung reign, the Chinese have recovered the skills and knowledge to make ancient and traditional jewellery work.

Punched work, pierced work, and filigree are characteristics of Chinese jewellery. Their jewellery is seen to provide power and strength to the wearer. Animals were representative and symbolic. For example,  the dragon symbolized power and good luck, the goldfish for abundance of gold, the phoenix for good fortune, opportunity and luck, and many others like bird, tiger, monkey, bat, peacock. Clouds, flowers and twigs were also symbols of good luck. Colours and semi precious stones were worn in order to give power, but also to cure some diseases, give longevity, and to be healthy.  The most famous stones used for many centuries are coral, turquoise and jade.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Turquoise is seen as a “living stone” that shares the ultimate fate of the mortal that wear it. Its colour symbolizes water, air and sky. This stone can counteract devil forces and make the wearer brave and invulnerable. In addition, seeing it in a dream may bring you good luck.

Coral is supposed to bring good luck, strength to women, and favourable effects on menstruation. The most desired variety is the Italian coral. It was brought by the Silk Road and was only worn by the wealthiest class. Marco Polo noted that Tibetans ranked coral among the precious stones and used it to adorn the necks of their women and idols.

Turquoise and coral were used to make amulet boxes in silver, gold or copper. Hidden spells or prayers in the boxes were used to appease evil spirits, while the decoration was symbolic to strengthen power content.

amulet box made with turquoise and coral stones

The blue turquoise colour was also given by enamel or by the very traditional Chinese process: using Kingfisher feathers. The technique, called tian-tsui, means “dotting with kingfishers” that involves using glue to adhere the feathers onto vermeil, or silver. The Kingfisher bird is highly esteemed by the Chinese for its colour and celebrated in poetry and song by Chinese from ancient times. Over the centuries, the Kingfisher’s blue colour feather became highly prized and extremely sought after as an inlay in decorative arts. Kingfisher feather were used by the Chinese to denote status, wealth and royalty. Today that tradition has disappeared; many birds were killed during the Qing dynasty just in order to collect their feathers and the skill of tian tsui has disappeared as well. But we can still see very wonderful pieces in museums.

hair ornament made with kingfisher feathers

chinese necklace and earings made with coral beads and kingfisher feathers

This portrait of the wife of a high dignitary is painted on silk. It was made during the 1st Ming dynasty (early 15th century). She’s wearing a traditional headdress, which constituted with phoenix, clouds and flowers. The red beads were probably coral and the clouds in blue are made with kingfisher feathers to symbolize air and sky. We can also see turquoise beads on the pendants and pearls.

Turquoise, coral and pearls are very famous in Chinese jewellery. But the most famous stone is obviously the Jade. Not only for jewellery making, also for decorative objects, dishes, vases, hair comb… We found utilization of jade as jewel since Palaeolithic (hunter-gatherers) period with perforated beads at Zhoukoudian. But it’s during the Neolithic period the “art of jade” have started, caring in the Zhejiang province (5000 BC). The massive production of finely polished pendants and beads were being produced in South-East China during the 3rd millennium before Christ.  In ancient time, Jade was most expensive than gold. For example during the Imperial China, the first prize for an athlete was jade, after gold for the second place and at the third place ivory.

Jade often has a green colour, but the most rare and luxurious one is the white jade.  Many colours can be found: pink, orange or light brown, blue, black. The different colours are created by different types of chemical components: the green jade contains chromium salts, the blue-green jade contains cobalt salts, the black jade contains titanium salts, and the pink jade contains salts of iron and manganese.

traditional jade bangle made in various colours

In ancient China, jade was used in rituals and sacrifices. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, the sky was round and the earth was square. A jade ornament with a round hole in the middle, called “bi”, symbolized the sky. A jewel of long hollow jade with rectangular sides, called “cong”, symbolized the earth. The bi was often placed with the corpse before burial as jade cicada was used to symbolize rebirth.

China, late Eastern Zhou dynasty or early Western Han dynasty 3rd – 2nd century BC Diameter: 5 1/8 inches, 13 cm Thickness: 1/8 inch, 0.4 cm

In the Han Dynasty, some leaders were buried in suits made entirely of jade. It was made of many pieces with various shapes, usually square, that were held together by thin threads of precious metal or silk, like the shroud of King of Chu. These extremely expensive structures were reserved only for elites. It is estimated that it took several years to achieve this kind of ritual costume that consists of 2000 to 5000 pieces! The Chinese believed that jade had magical properties and protected the corpse from decomposition.

jade shroud made with white jade and gold thread, Han dynasty.

Jade is still being used today, although the techniques have changed with technology the jade objects as talismans, “bi” or decorative objects are still used in Chinese culture, and popular with tourists as souvenirs.