Produced for the personal storage of powdered tobacco, the diminutive snuff bottle is an emblem of global mobility in the production, consumption, and display of Chinese decorative arts. As seen in this case, snuff bottles were made from a broad range of materials, including hardstones, copper, porcelain, and lacquer. Such materials often required intensive human labor, for example the prized jade sourced far from China’s cultural centers, which required extraction, processing, and shipping. By the end of the 19th century, snuff bottles were accessible to a wide range of consumers, becoming one of the most widely collected forms of Chinese art outside China.
Palm-sized and inviting to the touch, snuff bottles were meant to be carried by their owners. Their smallness and adaptability lent the form to flights of the imagination, and the stylistic diversity of snuff bottles is vast. A few consistent devices may be observed, however, such as visual punning, archaicism, and appropriation of natural patterns that appear in stone.