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?

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