Pictures From Natural Flaws or Inclusions Found in Stones
personal view by John Neville Cohen
Everyone will I am sure appreciate well hollowed stone antique Chinese
snuff bottles, once handled, as the lovely shapes and purity of the
stones used just cannot fail to impress.
One would imagine that the approach would have been to avoid any
inclusions or flaws, and to form the bottle from only the best parts of
the stone. This often was
the case. But what I find
even more fascinating, is the amazing way they deliberately and
brilliantly, took advantage of natural flaws and inclusions often found
present in these stones.
quartz and jade stones have an outer layer of a different colour,
particularly the pebbles from the riverbeds.
They also have faults and flaws plus other coloured material,
often deep in the stone. Sometimes these can be very thin skin-like
inclusions, whilst in others large chunks are found.
When one considers that no one knows just what is inside any of these
rocks until, as the cuts are made and the secrets of the stone are
revealed, they discover how pure, or otherwise, the stone really is.
It is with the stones that have inclusions or flaws that 'Picture Agate' snuff bottles are made.
The best of these incredible bottles, once completed, manage to
make the inclusion, that forms the image, look as if it has appeared in
just the right place as if to order!
There are different types of work within this group of snuff bottles and
the first ones are what we call 'Cameo' carvings. These take advantage
of any outer skin or blob type of inclusion (of a different colour);
they can be quite thick and are carved in relief.
Another type is called 'Shadow Agates' and these take advantage
of markings in the stone where, with the help of only a little carving,
an image is created. Lastly,
the most fascinating ones are called ‘Silhouette Agates' but in this
group no apparent carving is required.
The image is achieved mainly by the angle and choice of shape, as
well as the size and position of the bottle to be formed out of the rock
so that the inclusion becomes an image. These bottles have to be seen to
What is really mind blowing to me is the fact that there are even some
of these bottles with pictures on both sides!
Sadly, few of them were signed. We
only know that there was a certain school of carvers known as the 'Suzhou School'. Their
works are easily recognised by the style and quality of the carving,
plus the fact that they make use of every mark in the stone to form the
picture. They are amazing
bottles when good, but there are many later works that tend to look too
stiff and the carving lacks the more fluid artistic touch of the master
carvers. Unfortunately, hardly any of these bottles are really well
Our First Bottle
So to describe our first purchase, this was a 'Shadow Agate picture
bottle' involving a little carving, and very well hollowed. It is a most appropriate subject and colour for a snuff
bottle because the russet inclusions have been used to show 'Putai Ho-Shang'.
He is always depicted as a very corpulent man with a bare chest
and abdomen and he is the patron saint of tobacconists.
In this bottle he appears surprised by a bat whilst sitting below
some tobacco leaves. The bat to the Chinese is a good luck symbol.
You can see how easily he appears, nicely placed within the
bottle yet only his head and a suggestion of his hand have been carved.
owned a number of 'Picture Agates' and to illustrate the different
types described, the photograph of the duck with lingzhi fungus in its
beak is a good 'Silhouette' example.
Incidentally, the fungus is a symbol for wishing long life.
This bottle is very unusual as there is a recess carved
originally to create the image that serves as a built in dish.
a superb bottle of fishes with pictures on both sides: the pair of
fishes on one side are 'Cameo' carved and to the Chinese represent
fidelity and happy conjugal rights in marriage.
On the other side a fish and aquatic plants make use of every
mark in the stone, all this on a well shaped bottle that is very well
these bottles illustrated were made between 1750 and 1860.
To effectively judge hard stone snuff bottles, the first consideration
should be concerned with the overall artistic impression.
You need to be satisfied that the work looks well composed and
well positioned and that the images formed are flowing rather than stiff
The next stage is to have a closer look at the technical skills.
When I look at a cameo type of carving I study the shape and
finish of the background, close to the edge of the carving.
On poorer bottles this can be indented, uneven and not so well
polished as the rest.
Really fine examples look as if the raised cameo part has somehow
been glued onto a beautifully formed bottle.
Engraved work at its best is very precise and provides the
detail. When closely looking (under magnification) at a poor bottle
these engraved parts can look very crude.
Neville Cohen: An international award winning photographer
who also became a well known Asian antiques collector and an
enthusiast of Jensen British classic cars.
Other interests are skiing and Salsa dancing.
The author has been a very keen
collector for many years in helping to create ‘The Cohen
Please have a look at: - https://www.jncohen.net
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photographs, please use the following link: https://www.jncohen.com/Articles/articles.htm
Keywords: Amazing pictures from flaws by John Neville Cohen, Chinese, antique, stone carvings, carved using natural flaws, as part of the image, jade, quartz and chalcedony.