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A Brief History of Snuff Bottles

Snuff was first introduced to China by the Europeans in the mid 16th century probably not long after tobacco was first imported. However, snuff bottles can be only traced back as far as the 17th century during the reign of the Qing dynasty emperor Shunzhi (1643 - 61 AD).

Social ritual

Although the use of snuff in China was initially frowned upon by the Manchus who considered the habitual act to be messy, it wasn't long before opinions began to change with snuff becoming a social ritual in the upper echelons of society. This change in opinion may have partially occurred through the initial development of the functional design aspect of the snuff bottle. Snuff bottles became equipped with tight cork stoppers attached to miniature spoons usually made of ivory, silver or tortoiseshell. The spoon was utilised to scoop out a small amount of snuff to be transferred to a thumbnail and then from there sniffed up the nostrils. This procedure probably made the process comparatively clean.

Variety of materials

With the continual popularization of snuff coinciding with the China's flourishing arts and crafts industry reaching it's peak during both the Kangxi period and the later 18th century Qianlong period, snuff bottles were constantly being refined resulting in a vast variety of forms and designs. The skills and ingenuity of the Chinese artisans were utilised to create a wealth and variety of snuff bottles in almost every conceivable material. These materials included porcelain, glass, jade, metal, cloisonné, enamels, cinnabar lacquer, ivory, rhinoceros and buffalo horn, bamboo, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and coral as well as various semi precious hardstones and varieties of quartz.

Collecting snuff bottles

Unlike any other area in the broad spectrum of Chinese art, the shear diversity of snuff bottles in existence makes them very appealing to a wind range of Chinese art collectors. Whether your personal preferences lean towards porcelain, jade, glass or any other medium there are bound to be examples which one will appreciate and admire. Another positive aspect which makes them even more appealing is their size, making them ideal for collectors with limited space.

If you have any snuff bottles that you would like to sell, then please contact Robin Newcombe, Asian art specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.