SILVER was once rare, more difficult to extract and more precious than gold in China where silver was made into distinctive jewelry, good-luck charms, ornaments and fine silverware.
Though it doesn’t glitter like gold, it has a special luster and patina and because it’s malleable, it is easily shaped and carved.
Silver objects and jewelry are frequently mentioned in novels about old China and often associated with feudal society. During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) silver represented feudal indulgence of the upper classes and was sometimes confiscated and melted.
Silver is now priced at US$31 an ounce.
Use of silver dates back to the Zhou Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago and because it was rare, it was often melted to create new works as tastes changed with dynasties.
Today it’s difficult to find fine old pieces of silversmith’s work, but there are collectors and experts on silver art and jewelry.
Hu Jianjun, associated professor at the academy of fine arts at Shanghai University, has been collecting and researching old silver since the year 2000. Last month she delivered a lecture on appreciation of old silver at the newly opened China Art Museum at the Shanghai World Expo site.
“I was not prepared for so many listeners,” Hu says. “Maybe we all share a special feeling toward old Chinese silver, which used to be common in many families in the old days.”
Hu focuses on pre-1949 silver, worked into dining ware, jewelry and ornaments. Some are finely wrought and are fashioned with fine enamel work and gemstones.
“If you go looking for real old silver today at antique market, the chance of finding quality pieces is nearly none,” Hu says.
“In ancient times, silver was not abundant and craftsmen would melt work of earlier dynasties and fashion new works.”
Another reason for scarcity was the change in women’s hair styles and costume. At the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), many urban women cut their hair short, so they didn’t need hair clasps or elaborate silver pins with dangling ornaments. Silver went out of fashion.
A major blow to silver making was the “cultural revolution.”
“Old silver represented decadence of the old society,” Hu says. “An old craftsman told me that buckets and buckets of old silver ornaments were smelted into silver ingots during that period because the old silverware represented a feudal period.
“All that superb carving technique, creative design and the intricate patterns were gone with the fire.”
Many Chinese were unaware of the significance of the loss of old silver art, compared with the loss of other antiques and antiquities during that period.
Beginning in the 1980s, it was common for urban Chinese families to exchange the old silver that remained, sometimes valuable heirlooms, for gold jewelry, representing “a new lifestyle in a new epoch,” Hu says.
Hu has collected nearly 600 pieces of old silver work, purchasing them from antiques markets or private art dealers. They include jewel boxes, clasps, rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, charms and various ornament.
Each dynasty had its distinctive patterns, skills and favored objects. For example, a “longevity lock” talisman during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties was often used to bless a newborn. They typically bore patterns of bats, lotus and clouds.
“Look at the design of some silver made in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Even today they appear very modern. I am amazed at the aesthetic taste of our predecessors.”
Hu holds out a silver fish charm about the size of two fingers, which contains a folded mini-comb that can be used by both women and men. Men would comb their beard or mustache.
“Due to the rarity of old Chinese silver pieces in the market, the price has rocketed in recent years,” Hu says, adding that some people collect for investment, rather than appreciation.