Peking glass is nothing to snuff at. Gorgeous glass objects, not just snuff bottles, resulted from the combination of technology with innovative craftsmanship to capture a trend; all in all, a very modern approach for 17th century China. To fully appreciate Peking Glass and how its creation signaled the end of Ancient Chinese glass production, let’s peak back into history.
While glass was made in China as early as c.300 BC, it never really gained much traction as a decorative material until the late 1600’s when Reverend Kilian Stumpf, a German missionary, skilled glass maker and neighbor of the Imperial Palace repaired the palace glass melting furnaces and set up the first glass workshop in China. He was instrumental in teaching the art of glass making and enamel colors as well.
Peking glass was originally created by craftsman to simply imitate jade and other hard stones, however, that all changed drastically under the reign of Emperor Kangxi during the Qing Dynasty when the Imperial Glass workshop opened in 1696 on the grounds of the Forbidden City. Working alongside other Imperial craftsmen, the glass men became more innovative with their designs; incorporating lacquer, enamels and exotic carvings into the glass. Around this time the Western habit of snuffing tobacco was widely gaining popularity in China’s high society and decorative snuff bottles became all the rage. The extravagant ornamental glass snuff bottles produced at the Imperial Workshop were used by the royal family who also gave them as fashionable gifts to the court and foreign diplomats. These highly coveted glass items consisted of snuff boxes as well as vases, bowls, jars, and incense burners.
For the next 2 centuries, glass was considered as valuable as other precious treasures with some even containing gold in order to produce the brilliant red and purple glass said to be preferred by the Qing Dynasty Yongzheng emperor. Eventually this art form took root in China’s common society and less expensive versions became available on the mass market at the turn of the 20th century drastically reducing the allure of the Imperial glass wares.
Peking glass traditionally starts with a single color base that is dipped in colored glass one layer at a time up to 5 lavish layers. Traditional base colors of Peking Glass are clear, opaque or pearl white, imperial yellow, wine red, and sometimes black. Additional colors such as green, blue, red and purple were used to imitate precious and semi-precious materials such as jade, lapis lazuli and rubies.
Some items use different hues of the same color to create amazing saturation of color while others utilize different colored layers of glass which are deliberately exposed when carved. The overlaid glass layers are usually thin to preserve the often intricate shape of the bottles. Carving of intricate patterns, while labor intensive, produce singularly sumptuous designs on the surface of the Peking Glass, also known as Chinese Overlay Carved Glass. The court’s favorite themes centered on flora and fauna in addition to important Chinese symbols and landscapes. Not just another pretty face, many of the subjects had traditional meanings: Peaches symbolize very long life, Lotus flowers imply harmony, and Fish represent bounty.
Back by Royal decree, or maybe just because we like it, Peking Glass is having its moment again. While it never really left, Eric Brand presents a new and novel concept utilizing this ancient Chinese technique in their new Imperial Glass tables. The combination of colorful Peking Glass on a precision metal base topped with crystal clear glass provides an unobstructed view of the concentric circles that are so iconic to Peking glass.
For centuries, Peking glass has been used for decorative purposes and is available in many colors and shapes that are nothing to snuff at.