ANTIQUE HORNBILL JEWELRY
Many varied and interesting heirlooms have come down in American families from the days of the Old China Trade. Perhaps the most fascinating of these, and certainly the least known, are bracelets, brooches, and earrings made of a translucent ivory-like substance that is almost never recognized by modern jewelers and collectors - hornbill ivory, a strange product from an equally strange
The Old World has some sixty varieties of hornbills, ranging from Africa across India and southeast Asia to the Pacific Islands; but only one of these bears the dense, smooth-textured substance which is suitable for carving. This is the rare helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) of Malaya, Sumatra, and Borneo. One of the largest and most grotesque of birds, it has on the front of its head, above the beak, a solid mass of a dense yellowish substance covered with an arching layer of brilliant scarlet sheathing. Many of the other kinds of hornbill have "casques" of the same size upon their brows, or even larger ones, but these are all hollow or filled with a spongy tissue to keep them light for ease in flying. The helmeted variety's solid casque may once have had a function, but for the last five hundred years or so it has been a distinct liability to the bird. By the end of the last century, the native peoples of southern Asia had almost exterminated the species in their efforts to obtain the casque.
Pieces of hornbill ivory first came to China in 1371 among tribute gifts from the sultan of Brunei in northern Borneo. The bright coloring of this unusual material immediately caught the fancy of the Chinese gentry, and a great vogue for it sprang up in the Ming court. It was so highly valued that Ming tribute regulations set a price of a thousand cash (small copper coins) for one piece of hornbill casque - the same amount given for half an ounce of precious coral beads, or a fifth of an ounce of rare seed pearls. The scarlet sheathing was especially prized for belt facings, and because of its high price, attempts were made to counterfeit it. One fifteenth-century Ming writer pointed out that the real could be distinguished from imitations by the fine wavy lines found only in the genuine. This still holds true. When the Manchus took over China in 1644 and founded the Ch'ing dynasty, they discovered this rare substance which came by trade and tribute from the southern kingdoms, and they became equally fond of it.
The Ch'ing courtiers vied with each other to obtain finely carved personal ornaments of rare materials, and among the most prized were those of hornbill ivory. One can find archer's thumb rings, tubes to hold the peacock plumes on the mandarin hats, and belt buckles as well as abstinence plaques to advertise personal piety, and even snuff bottles, all made of hornbill ivory in the capital. In its natural state the lump of carvable substance in the casque of the helmeted hornbill is at most about two inches long, an inch and a half high, and half an inch
thick. So, in order to obtain a piece big enough for a large buckle, a long plume holder, or a snuff bottle, a preliminary process was needed. Apparently the Chinese artisans had some trick of heating or steaming the raw hornbill ivory to flatten it and provide longer and broader pieces. Probably they used the same methods the southern Chinese employed for treating pressed horn and tortoise-shell. This would account for passages in old Chinese books, which say, "Hornbill ivory is like tortoiseshell." Apparently the processing condensed the hornbill substance to give it greater structural strength, and it also imparted a remarkable translucence to the finished piece. This quality is likewise apparent in the fine hornbill Jewelry made later in Canton.
The production of hornbill objects for the court continued in Peking until the end of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1911, and sometime during the middle years of the nineteenth century a parallel industry developed in Canton for the foreign trade. Before 1842 Canton was the only port open to European and American ships, and even after others had been made available through the treaties that followed the Opium Wars, it remained a chief port for forty years longer. Many foreign merchants and missionaries took up residence there, and special industries arose to meet their needs.
The first datable specimen of foreign-style jewelry in this medium that is known is a bracelet belonging to Mrs. Morrison C. Huston of Philadelphia. This was originally made as a wedding present for Evelyn Quintard of Stamford, Connecticut, who married Charles E. Jackson of Middletown in 1873. A Mrs. Mary Bowman of San Francisco, who gave it to her, is said to have had it made in China, copying one that she herself already had. If so. the pattern may go back a few years earlier. Its small medallions with roses are so intricately carved that the translucent petals stand out in sharp relief, while the spacers in filigree gold show equally delicate workmanship. It is still kept in its original velvet-lined ivory case. Another set, shows a further development in style, drawing away from the native Chinese restraint and tending toward a more flamboyant late Victorian tradition. This set consists of a very large bracelet with heavy hornbill medallions, a brooch, and a lavaliere; its ivory case has places for a finger ring and a pair of earrings which once completed the set. The carving is very deep, and the filigree work is not only far more elaborate than that on Mrs. Huston's bracelet, but more Occidental too. Its doves and roses and pendant tassels are definitely un-Chinese. I have seen a large brooch and matching earrings with exactly the same motifs and identical workmanship, known to have been purchased in 1883 - which may indicate the date of this set.
All three sets discussed above have their gold mountings stamped with a seal bearing the characters ‘Teh Hsing’, literally "Virtuous Prosperity," the mark of a certain Chinese goldsmith. Although this indicates that all the pieces were mounted in the same gold shop, it does not give a clue to the actual carver. Each craft was strictly set apart in the guild system of Old China, so that the ivory carver would have had to farm out the gold work.
Peter and Jonathan both helped in the business, possibly
from quite an early date, though Jonathan's mark was first registered along with
Peter's in 1790. This partnership was of short duration. Jonathan, who married
Ann Dowlinff, died in 1791. He left everything to his wife in his will dated
January 4, 1776 and proved on August 13 of the same year.
The carving of hornbill jewelry was an entirely anonymous art. It is not discussed in the old Chinese records of local crafts. The only name that has come down to us in this connection is that of a shop called Ho-a-ching, which was situated in Club Street on Honam Island, where most of the foreigners lived, across the Pearl River from Canton proper. This is referred to in a contemporary account of Canton and its commerce, published in Hong-Kong and London in 1867, as a shop owned by two brothers, catering exclusively to the foreign trade, "whose ivory carvings are superior to everything that has been attempted in this branch of the art," and who also made "very handsome ornaments" from hornbill ivory. (The English author described the material without really knowing what it was. Even in his day, it was a mysterious substance.)
As two of the sets of hornbill discussed above were presented in handsome elephant ivory cases, they are likely to have been produced by some shop which did work in both media. Hence, they may have come from this very shop. It might be objected that if the Ho-a-ching products were successful with foreign buyers, other shops would have tried to imitate its work to share in the rewards of a profitable business. But not enough examples have survived to indicate that there was a large output. Even if the Ho-a-ching shop did not have some closely guarded secret which enabled its carvers to work so deftly in this delicate and brittle material, it could well be that other Cantonese artisans preferred to work in
their own national tradition.
Exotic as these bracelets and brooches may appear to modern Western eyes, their style and workmanship are essentially non-Chinese. Both the Chinese and the Manchus prized the scarlet sheath material above all. Their artisans used it for the principal decoration on the surface of the object they were making, cutting down through it here and there to expose the yellow base substance which set it off so admirably. Furthermore, the Chinese always kept their own carvings in very low relief. They had a strongly developed sense of tactile appreciation, and liked to run their fingers over an object to enjoy its sensuous feel. To this end, they avoided any prominent projections in their carvings and had an especial aversion
to sharp edges.
On the hornbill jewelry made expressly for the foreign trade, the precious red substance never appears. Occasionally the outer edge of a floral carving may have a scarlet flush, but this is because it has been carved from the portion of the core immediately adjoining the sheathing. The scarlet sheath itself was always removed in advance, for use within China. This is perfectly in accord with the traditional view of the Chinese toward foreigners, especially those from the West. The people of the "Middle Kingdom" felt that the "outer Barbarians" had no real appreciation of the finer things of life, and they sold them the second- and third-rate porcelains, silks, teas, and so forth, saving the best for home consumption. Few really good Chinese things reached the West until after the Revolution in 1911.
This attitude toward the Western customers also found expression in the style of carving. The Westerners liked rose patterns, and since they could not appreciate tactile values, sharp-edged carvings would not disturb them. If they enjoyed work in high relief let them have it, even though it was obviously not the best way to handle such a brittle medium; the projecting petals could be easily broken, and might also flake off horizontally because of the layered structure of the substance. Not only was the workmanship foreign, so were the roses and the doves. Twin birds could be a wedding symbol, East or West: but the choice of a dove was purely Occidental. The Chinese would have used instead the long-tailed magpie, traditional bird of joy. As we have seen, the whole character of the settings was also Western; good Chinese taste would have selected a plainer frame for such intricate carving, and would have hesitated to use such flamboyance to set off something already flamboyant.
Whatever we might think about the over-elaboration of the carved roses - and that is after all a matter of taste- the workmanship on them was delicate and fine, suggesting that there must have been a long tradition of similar craftsmanship behind them. Some indication of what the previous work might have been like is provided by a medallion for a brooch which belongs to the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. Its very shape indicates that it was intended for the foreign market, as the Chinese women did not wear broad oval brooches; and though the subject is in the best Chinese classical tradition, its carving is in somewhat too high relief to satisfy a fastidious Chinese. This particular medallion was found among the possessions left by Frederick Townsend Ward of Salem, who was killed in 1862 while commanding the "Ever Victorious Army" during the Taiping Rebellion. It belonged to his Chinese wife, Chang Mei, whom he had married earlier in the same year and who died only a few months after him, and it was probably a present to her from him. With its mixture of Chinese and foreign tastes, this medallion is important as a probable link in the development from purely Chinese carvings to the highly occidentalized rose pattern.
Our Victorian grandparents were told that the hornbill jewelry came from a bird; but no one knew what bird. One brooch that found its way into an American museum was labeled by its donor, "carved from a calcareous spot back of a pelican's eve." Others said that the substance had come from the head of a crane. "Crane's crest" or "hornbill ivory" or simply "hornbill," whatever one may choose to call it, this substance is as handsome as it is unusual, and the jewelry made from it in Canton during the last century should be treasured. Once people begin to recognize it, new specimens will probably be discovered among Victorian heirlooms. They are well worth searching for.
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