Antique snuff bottles
Snuff bottles were used to contain powdered tobacco, otherwise known as snuff.
It is widely recognized that Chinese made vintage snuff bottles are among the most valuable in the world, however, it is hard to determine how these items got into the country in the first place. Some believe it was Russian or Portuguese traders who first brought such bottles to China, while others credit it to marauding Manchus.
Though early Chinese abhorred the practice of tobacco smoking, they believed that snuff or tobacco mixed with spices and herbs possessed medicinal properties. These mixes were used by the Chinese to treat migraines and other ailments.
When the Jesuits visited China in 1894, they presented an ornate snuff box to Kangxi, who was the sitting emperor at that time. While Kangxi appreciated the gift, he felt that the box would not be able protect snuff against the humid climate of China since it cannot be sealed tightly. He realized that traditional Chinese medicine bottles could do a better job of keeping snuff intact.
Later on, Emperor Kangxi commissioned artisans to make snuff bottles for him and his family. Beautiful and highly decorated snuff bottles soon became status symbols in the imperial court, and officials were known to often take out their bottles in public for others to admire them.
These bottles which usually stood 3 inches tall or less, were made of different materials such as glass, jade, limestone, amethyst, metal, and agate. Many also came with spoons that were made of ivory, metal, tortoise shell, or bone.
When tobacco became widely available in China, the habit of tobacco sniffing became extremely popular all over the country. This led box makers to produce cheap porcelain snuff boxes for the masses, which today are not considered valuable and often ignored by collectors.
In the 1920s, the Chinese stopped using snuff. However, this did not prevent artisans from making snuff bottles, who then found a new market in collectors. Most collectors though prefer bottles that have been used to store snuff.
Vintage snuff bottles
Among the most valuable vintage snuff bottles today are those made by artisans of the Qianlong and Yongzheng courts. Many Qianlong and Yongzheng snuff bottle makers were skilled in producing porcelain or glass bottles that appear as if they were made from turquoise, coral, amethyst, agate, or jade.
These artisans were also heavily influenced by Jesuits who taught them a special technique of painting and enamelling glass or metal. In fact, many of the bottles that they made feature European Catholic iconography. These vintage bottles today though can easily fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in auctions.
Inside painted snuff bottles are also considered today as highly collectible and extremely valuable. These bottles were first made during the late 1800s and were so beautifully designed that they were also used for display purposes. Inside-painted snuff bottles typically were painted using right-angled brushes.
For those who are interested in going into snuff bottle collection, it is strongly advised that they exercise caution when buying 18th and 19th century snuff bottles as there are many dealers out there that sell fakes models of these.