The Chinese fingernail guard came from the time of the Qing dynasty. For having long fingernails was a sign of power and beauty and wearing fingernail guards protected the nails.
Nail guards were usually made from metals or shells, sometimes also jade. Often made of gold, silver, bronze, or gilded metal, and embedded with pearls and precious stones. The length can be anywhere from 3cm to 15cm depending on how long the wearer wishes it to be.
The fingernail guard would be worn as a single piece, or in pairs. They were worn by the elite of the Manchurian court ladies, of the latter part of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912).
Late Qing rulers pursued a life of great luxury, and a lady took great care to emphasise her nails, for they were a sign of her ability to rely on her servants and to show she did not perform manual tasks. Usually they were worn on the little finger and the ring finger.
Nail guards could be worn on one hand only, or on both hands; the latter would signal the wearer’s higher status as it shows they do not need to use either of their hands.
Earlier in China c 3000 BC. Long fingernail were also a sign of status and power, but before the finger guard, Chinese high born ladies used a coloured lacquer to not only colour their nails, but to also strengthen them. In the Zhou dynasty c 600 BC, Chinese royalty used gold and silver to enhance their nails. In the Ming dynasty red and black became the colours of choice. Red being used to signify top status.
The wearing of fingernail guards was associated with the Manchurian high culture of the Qing dynasty where the finger guards purpose became mixed and were regarded as a jewellery accessory. They were finely carved and inlaid with gold and gems. They were also enameled and made from various materials. It is known that the Dowager Empress Cixis nails were up to six inches long. In Chinese tradition fingernail guards had motifs and symbols such as the endless knot, symbolising a long and prosperous life, or bats and coins symbols of good luck and wealth, also various Buddhist symbols were incorporated.