Friday, December 20, 2013

Puzzling Evidence - The JingFa Plum or Cherry Blossom Bud

In my quest to discover what the tell-tale signs were to distinguish older Chinese cloisonné beads from newer products, one of the motifs I noticed that changed with the decades was the little wire cloud used to stabilize the background enamel (the JingFa Cloud).  Another is the construction method for blossom buds.

This little bowl is clearly prior to World War II because of its red “CHINA” marking on the bottom. 

According to Internet lore (I haven't fact-checked this) the 1890 McKinley Tariff Act was further amended in 1921 to require “Made In” to be added to the country-origin mark for items for export to the United States.  Many shops continued to mark their wares as they always had, exporters simply pasting “Made in China” paper labels onto items destined for the U.S. 

Note the three different types of marks on these items that were clearly produced by the same workshop.

To continue with the examination of our little bowl, note the way the blossom buds are wired: a central round wire, with arcs from the same circle on either side.  Three pieces of wire.
3-wire buds

In other cloisonné items that seem to date from the 1920s-1940s, a blossom bud appears that is made of a single wire curved into 3 loops:
3-loop buds

In this exceptionally nice pair of vases [pictures courtesy of eBay vendor splicer9], their “Made In China” base stamp dating them to between 1921 and 1949, both styles of blossom buds are apparent.  Whether this was one artist working two variations on a theme, or co-workers with two different ideas as to how to execute the blossom branch motif, we’ll likely never know.

Contrast the older vase pair with a nice mirror-image JingFa pair likely of post-70s manufacture:

A nice set of beads featuring buds made by the 3-loop method, various clouds and spirals, and a Morning Glory Clasp.

This charm bracelet, based upon the style of clasp, seems likely to date from the 1930s.  The style of the cloisonné bead is also consistent with other cloisonné beads used in costume jewelry at that time – a rather large bead, with a limited palette of opaque enamel colors.

The bud motifs are comparatively large, as if the same diameter circular jig used for household items had simply been appropriated to make the bead wires.  Three pieces of wire to make a bud.
The 1930s bead with similar companions of unknown age, all displaying the 3-wire bud.  Note the "crinkle" and "peaked" cloud patterns in the two beads on the right, and the fine detail of the center bead.
Here’s another piece that has a late 30s-early 40s look to it.  Again, note the limited enamel palette, but this time the blossom buds are comparatively small and calibrated to the overall design.
Each pendant measures 35x28mm
Necklaces with nicer silver or cloisonné clasps that display the 3-wire bud, with spirals and peaked clouds:

Beads are 15mm

This rare little set of beads, that came accompanied with credible provenance from the 1950s, shows the 3-wire blossom bud accompanied by tiny JingFa clouds: 
Beads are 12mm
Here is the seller’s touching account:
My parents are Russian, and my father’s first job after graduation (he is a geologist) was in China, it was 1955-1958, I believe (I was not born yet).  They traveled all over China, spending a few months here and there (my mom and my brother in some town and father “in the field” – surveying the surrounding areas).  Definitely Peking and Shanghai, but also Chuntsin in the South and more places whose names I don’t remember.  My mom lives with me here now, but she is 82 and her memory is not good.  I found those beads among her things when I moved her, but she can’t remember where they are from; she thinks she got them in China.”

The original silk knotting had deteriorated and the clasp had disappeared, so the seller re-strung the beads with wire loops.  Those curious about the history of the time can read Wikipedia on the Sino-Soviet Split, as well as Tombstone and Mao’sGreat Famine.  Once again, tiny trinkets like beads get caught up in the whirlpools of history.

As described in a prior post, the JingFa cloisonné factory cooperative was formed in 1956.  What appears on pieces clearly of JingFa manufacture (as evidenced by the stereotypical little cloud motifs also on these pieces) is a new method for making a blossom bud out of one continuous wire: the center is curved into a sort of pinched droplet, then two “wings” are formed on the same curve and bent somewhat to butt their ends against the center drop.  The buds often look a bit elongated, as the central droplet often isn’t perfectly circular.  The wire ends are at the tip of the bud, not against the base near the stem.
JingFa buds

As with the older “crinkle” and “peaked spiral” clouds, the 3-wire and 3-loop blossom buds could have been continued to be used by other workshops, or by different artisans working under the JingFa cooperative.  It’s not as if a gong was sounded and use of older motifs ceased – more examples can be found with both the JingFa Cloud and the older style 3-wire bud:  
One possible explanation for this is that the JingFa style of cloud appears on cloisonne items made before 1956 – but the evidence for that so far is entirely lacking.  The more likely explanation seems to be older craftspersons or senior artists continuing to make cloisonné motifs in their usual manner, using tiny JingFa clouds right along with peaked clouds and spirals.  This Montreal Gazette article from 1973 describes how older craftspeople were recruited to restore traditional designs after products of the Cultural Revolution proved unappealing.  However, like the older cloud styles, eventually the 3-wire and 3-loop buds disappear, and only the JingFa bud appears.
Neatly made JingFa clouds and blossom buds, on a giant bead probably made sometime circa 1970.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Puzzling Evidence - 凤凰 The Fenghuang, or Chinese Phoenix in Cloisonne Beads

Earlier this year I purchased via online auction a Chinese cloisonne pendant or large disk bead with a phoenix on one side and a dragon on the other: 
The pendant turned out to be damaged, so I returned it for a refund. It was re-sold, and the buyer removed its original cord, re-strung it into an attractive bead necklace, and successfully sold it again.  What caught my curiosity was that, in her online auction, she described the pendant to be from around 1910.  Discussion at had persuaded me that this sort of pendant was vintage 1970s.  Which date was correct?  What were the clues that might enable one to date such an object?

Subsequently I harvested a number of these large disk beads from the Internet, either as purchases or images:
Three pendants with JingFa clouds, a black pendant with older style "crinkle" clouds.  Note the variance in workmanship - red upper left is the poorest.
Dragons on reverse sides
A Laurel Burch necklace from the late 1970s, according to its previous owner. A lovely, graceful bird.

Older style "crinkle" clouds, artist definitely had trouble putting the bird together.

Similar, but smaller and thinner, beads show up on belts that seem to date from the 1930s:
Now in a private collection, from Magic Dragon's Store.  Note that some beads are actual hand-wired cloisonne, others are exact champleve duplicates of a different phoenix design.  The cloisonne beads feature a rather simple version of the bird, and spiral "peaked" clouds.
Champleve beads from another belt

Apparently removed from belt (rectangular hole) and converted into a necklace.  Again, note the simplified design and cloud shapes that match cloisonne beads (not the champleve) beads on the first belt pictured above.
Note 10mm cloisonne clasp and older style of "peaked" spiral clouds
Phoenixes also turned up on cloisonne beads:
Artistic skill and workmanship vary quite a bit.  Heads...
Bodies and wings...

Tail feathers

Comparing the little phoenixes on the beads to this vintage vase, the more skilled of the two bead artists has done a rather amazing job of cramming so much lively detail onto a small curved surface.
Vase is stamped "CHINA" on base, seems to be pre-WWII.  Background enamel is actually a rich royal blue - digital cameras for some reason shift it toward a more turquoise sky blue.  I like the way the artist has managed to work with a limited palette of enamel colors to achieve a soft, rainbow-y effect.
Stunning pair of phoenix and peony vases, courtesy of W J M Antiques, Suffolk, United Kingdom
(click on the picture, these deserve a larger view)
Also for comparison, a small round pre-WWII dragon box not much bigger than the beads:

An oddity that turned up in my search is the way vendors described the creatures.  Dragons they understood immediately, but the phoenix apparently is not as easily recognizable as a bird and so wound up being called "serpents," "sea anemones," or "a fish."
The "fish."  Actually, I can understand this.
The pose seems to be similar to that of a courting male pheasant.
Lady Amherst's Pheasant
In fact, the whole bird, from the almond-shaped eyes, small tail feathers sticking out from the streaming peacock-style feathers, rainbow-colored wings, topknot, and wattle can be seen as an artistic composite of various real birds - golden pheasantsLady Amherst's pheasants (note the smaller feathers sticking out from the sides of the tail), peacocks of course, and one of our favorite dinners, the Red Jungle Fowl.   Standing depictions feature long, crane-like legs.

Wikipedia has more, of course, for those interested in the actual history of the iconography, including an explanation as to why male plumage wound up in a bird that is now connected with femininity.

Here's a more recent enameled phoenix, designed for some mysterious purpose - display object? container cover?

As to dating the beads, what do you think?  1910, or 1970s?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Puzzling Evidence - The Morning Glory Clasp

In a discussion at, we wondered if it was possible to date a Chinese cloisonné necklace by the style of clasp.  Those who frequent online auction sites may have noticed a type of floral cloisonné clasp that some vendors imagine dates from the Deco era (roughly between World Wars I and II, or the 1920s-early 1940s).  The flower is a morning glory.

In this photo of beads in my collection, the green strand on the bottom is the earliest, with a claimed date of 1950s (“According to the daughter, this was purchased in Asia in the 50s”).  The seller of the white ovals necklace at the top stated that they had imported this and similar necklaces in 1981. The craftsmanship of this white necklace seems a bit more hurried and typical of mass production; hence I placed it at the top end of the sequence, although I do not know the dating of the other necklaces, or whether the Morning Glory Clasp continued to be used past the 1980s.
Green beads from 1950s at bottom, white ovals from 1981 at top.
"Purchased in Asia in the 50s." With original box.

I also have a strand of small turquoise rounds and slender ovals, which appears similar to another necklace that was sold on eBay – my strand has what seems to be a vermeil filigree clasp, the eBay strand has a Morning Glory Clasp.  These beads are comparatively dainty – the rounds are only 8mm.  The eBay seller stated that a Chinese friend who travels to China to visit relatives purchased this necklace there in the 1960s.
purchased in China in the 1960s
My similar beads with vermeil filigree clasp
Thus we have three accounts that seem to place this clasp within a late 50s – early 80s timeframe of about 25 years.

As to the quality of the workmanship on these beads, they’re quite nice, displaying good detail, often a variety of floral designs and colors throughout the strand, plus an occasional butterfly.

The Morning Glory Clasp is a machine-stamped design – the cloison wires are not hand-applied.  Examining the clasp with a 10X loupe, one can see that the enamel has been carefully applied in just the right amount (usually) to result in a shiny fire-polished glaze that requires no subsequent grinding and polishing.  There are no polishing artifacts such as parallel lines and matte areas that can be seen on wired cloisonné.
Necklace with Morning Glory Clasp, 3 necklaces and a bracelet with actual cloisonne clasps (i.e., hand-wired cloisons)
10mm cloisonne clasp
Large 18mm beads, 15mm cloisonne clasp
14mm light celadon green beads with 15mm wisteria? grapes? motif cloisonne clasp

Comparing the three necklaces with a cloisonné clasp to those with the Morning Glory Clasp, some noticeable differences appear:

1)      The cloisonné clasp beads are large, and feel lighter in weight compared to the Morning Glory Clasp necklaces.
Some stats:
Green beads 88 grams, 24 inches with clasp, 20 18mm beads, 15mm clasp
Light celadon beads, 75.6 grams, almost 25 inches with clasp, 25 14mm beads, 15mm clasp
Light blue beads 93 grams, almost 28 inches with clasp, 28 15mm beads, 10mm clasp
15mm Morning Glory Clasp cobalt beads (4th clasp from the top in picture of all 8 necklaces) over 100 grams [scale maxed out], 20.5 inches, 26 15mm beads
15mm Morning Glory Clasp green beads 97.4 grams, almost 26 inches with clasp, 44 12mm bead

2)      All three cloisonné clasp necklaces are chained, not strung on cord or twisted silk. 
3)      Generally superior detail and greater variety of designs in the cloisonné clasp necklaces.  While the Morning Glory Clasp necklaces can contain a variety of floral patterns and colors (instead of one repetitive stereotyped design) and the occasional butterfly (note the black, red and blue oval strands in the picture), in the cloisonné clasp necklaces one can also find birds, koi goldfish, peaches, gourds, grapes, Buddhist motifs such as castanets, flower basket, paired fish… 
4)      All the Morning Glory Clasp beads mainly feature JingFa clouds, with an occasional peaked spiral cloud to be found.  The reverse appears in the cloisonné clasp necklaces – these use mainly older peaked spiral or crinkle clouds, with JingFa clouds only on a certain few beads.

It seems unlikely that the Morning Glory Clasp pre-dates World War II; rather, it appears to be an artifact mainly of the 1960s and 70s. 
A nice strand of neatly made and attractive beads
It also appears with other cloisonné-type beads, such as those with cinnabar or stamped or twisted wire patterns.

As to dating those necklaces with actual wired cloisonné clasps, the evidence is puzzling.  For example, the blue and light blue background enamels look identical to necklaces with the Morning Glory Clasp. Older artists? Artistry vs. mass production? Different workshops?

UPDATE: A bracelet with what looks like a cloisonne (i.e., hand-wired cloisons) version of the Morning Glory Clasp was sold recently on eBay.  Some pics, courtesy of the vendor, Vickysdesign917

A similar bracelet design from my collection:

UPDATE: An auction featuring 21 necklaces with this clasp, some apparently still in their factory wrappers: