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Snuff Bottle Collection

Page history last edited by Ann Vipond 1 year, 9 months ago


My Snuff Bottle Collection 

It has been said that
“A chewing wad is tobacco’s body; smoke is its ghost; but snuff is tobacco’s soul”

I am a collector of Snuff Bottles, no, not a mis-typed word, it is ‘bottles’ not boxes. When snuff was introduced to China, in the 17th century, the powder was found to absorb moisture from the damp atmosphere and became useless. The inventive Chinese soon adapted medicine bottles which had an air-tight stopper to keep their snuff dry. A small spoon was added to the stopper to take out a small portion of the powder for sniffing, known as ’snuffing’.

Snuff was, in that era, considered to be very beneficial; it was said to dispel colds, cure painful teeth, help in cases of asthma or constipation and was said to work wonders with digestion especially after overeating.

By the 1700s the habit of ‘snuffing’ had become popular at court and was being practiced by the Emperor. This quickly led to bottles being made more decorative and the whole scene became a fashion statement. Bottles, usually about 3 inches high, were regularly given as presents; when meeting a friend it was polite to offer him a pinch from your bottle which you ostentatiously displayed, in the hope that his was not more elaborate than yours.

The imperial patronage meant that the finest craftsmen in the Emperor’s workshops were employed to produce ever finer and more beautiful bottles. Ateliers outside the royal palace were quick to catch on and began to design bottles, if not for the masses, then certainly for aspiring and wealthy clients.

Every conceivable material was used – ivory, glass, semi-precious stone, porcelain, metal, wood and other natural materials. Some of the glass bottles are particularly fascinating as they have scenes painted on their inside surface – almost impossible when you see that the opening, through which the artist had to work, was less that half an inch across! Some bottles were made in wonderful shapes, others very simple to show off the exquisite material that had been used to make them.

I have over a hundred of these wonderful artefacts in my collection, picked up over many years in places as diverse as a Bangkok market and a high-end Bond Street shop. Here are pictures of twenty or so, showing examples from across the spectrum.

John Battison




47 Porcelain. Unusually, the decoration is not part of the firing process, the intricate design has been incised into the surface and then filled with colour.

51 Porcelain. Decorated in the traditional manner with the colours applied before the final firing. Because of the preponderance greens, designs such as this are known as ‘famille vert’.




27 Glass. An exquisite example of the inside painted genre. This is by a famous artist of the early 1800s, a small part of the painting is damaged, had it not been so the bottle would have been way beyond my pocket. The additional picture gives a close-up of some of the fabulous brushwork.




79 Glass. Another of the fascinating ‘inside painted’ bottles. It is a skill almost as old as bottles themselves – some 300 years. But it’s a skill that has not died out, this example was made in the last twenty years or so and cost me only a few pounds.

36 Glass. This type of decoration is ‘two-layered’. The bottle is made of the underlying colour (snowflake in this example) it is then covered with another layer, red in this case. An engraving tool is then used to etch away parts of the top layer and to engrave detail into what remains.




81 Glass. Many bottles were made with the glass being coloured or textured to simulate another material; in this example to look like layered agate. This is not a case of trying to cheat or to pass it off as something it is not, but the glassmaker showing off his skill. This example has no stopper; whilst collectors much prefer their bottles to have stoppers, it is better to have a nice example without, than not have it at all.

78 Natural stone. A bottle made of the semi-precious stone, agate. The shape has been kept very simple to allow the natural patterns in the stone to be seen.




64 Natural stone. This is a great example of crystal quartz – in the best examples it is quite transparent; hence the expression ‘crystal clear’. The simple stopper is made of amethyst. Being transparent, the quartz allows the spoon to be seen. The spoon is an essential part of all snuff bottles.

85 Natural stone. Agate, of a different type to No.78, is the material of this image of one of the Heavenly Twins. Untouched agate frequently has a ‘skin’ of a different colour. The skill of the artist is to try to carve away part of the skin, leaving bits which become part of the design. In this instance the black skin has become the hairpiece, the top knot and a pair of ‘lucky’ slippers on his shoulder. It must also be one of very few snuff bottles to include human genitals!




92 Natural stone. This natural material appears two-toned; it is amethyst fused with quartz. Most bottles are carved to be very pleasant to hold; the heavy carving on this puts it right out of this set.

97 Natural stone. A very unusual stone known generally as ‘hair crystal’. It is the quartz crystal already mentioned but with impurities which can be of many kinds. The impurity here is tourmaline which takes the form of black needle-like threads  a most attractive substance for a bottle.




23 Ivory. One that definitely falls into the category of ‘nice to hold’. With its smooth surface and tactile shape it falls very pleasantly into the palm. The back of this bottle has 28 finely drawn Chinese characters which are a poem telling the tale of a man going to ‘fairyland’.

05 Ivory. Carefully carved in the form of a corncob. I found this in an auction, described as something else. At the viewing, I gently twisted the mini cob a the top and, as I’d hoped, it was loose and came out with the spoon attached. I bought it at a very good price!




89 Amber. An amber bottle is something I had coveted for many years. I went to an antiques fair at the NEC with some birthday  money in my pocket. The first amber bottle I saw was magnificent, so was the price of £1000!  Many times my limit. Eventually I found this one – not very large and not very elaborately carved, but it was amber.

93 Wood. Not the most valuable of materials, but rather nicely carved. Many of the decorations used on snuff bottles have symbolic associations signifying the wishes that come with a gift. Here, we have an image of a hare, one of the Twelve Terrestrial Branches and signifying long life and immortality.




08 Horn. A very simple shape making use of the natural shape and hollowness of the horn – probably from a deer.

88 Coral. Another of simple shape, but here carved with a tiger’s head at its base. The tiger is the third of the symbolic animals; it is representative of the qualities of magisterial dignity, such as sternness, bravery an courage.




38. Lacquer. Lacquer is a very time-consuming technique – the basic shape is made, usually of copper, and then many layers of lacquer are coated on top, each being allowed to dry. The the artist uses an engraving tool to cut back to create the shapes he has in mind.


35. Cloisonne. Another technique which cannot be hurried. Once the shape of the bottle has been crafted, in metal, very fine wires are soldered to the the surface in the shapes the artist wants to create. These form small reservoirs into which coloured enamels are laid, after which the bottle is fired to a very high temperature which turns the enamels into glass, giving brilliant colours.




95. Plastic. Yes, this ancient art hit the modern era and plastic came to be used. It has to be said that bottles of this genre are aimed entirely at the tourist market. Never of high quality, and with prices often the equivalent of a few pence! Some do make a bit of an effort, such as this example, where the illustration, strangely, is done by the same technique as the first bottle above – the lines are scratched into the surface and then filled with colour. It is not entirely without merit, but not a bottle that would be bought by a serious collector.


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