There's no genie in a Chinese snuff bottle, but it's easy to see why these exquisite little phials the height of fashion in 18th century Beijing cast a spell on collectors today. Handcrafted from every material known to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), including copper, glass, porcelain, jade, ivory and amber, each one is a miniature masterpiece of the applied arts. Rich in symbolism achieved through decorative techniques such as enameling, stippling and relief carving they served as courtly gifts and good-luck charms. And their social significance wasn't to be sneezed at.
Denis S.K. Low, a retired realtor and Singapore native, has been amassing them for 28 years. His collection now stretches to 1,300 items 355 of which feature in his latest book, Chinese Snuff Bottles. A selection can also be seen in an exhibition at Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum until Nov. 7. In his text, Low describes the look and significance of every 2-in. to 3-in. (5-7 cm) piece. The interplay of fauna and flora from quails to monkeys and lotus flowers to peonies reflects the world of deference and ambition that centered on the Emperor, who is often represented by a dragon.
Tobacco reached China in the late 16th century. Its powdered form grew in popularity, however, when smoking was outlawed. Snuff was thought to be "medicinal," particularly as a remedy for colds, headaches and upset stomachs, and so escaped the ban. By 1800, taking snuff, and hoarding the ornate bottles it was dispensed from, was a national craze. Given current attitudes toward smoking, perhaps the time is ripe for a snuff revival? Maybe not, but its magical merchandising sure beats an old pack of cigarettes. 1 Empress Place; www.acm.org.sg