Meta-Museum – HOW THE CHINESE MADE THEIR MARK!

 

THE “PSEUDO-HALLMARK” PHENOMENON

 

By the late 18th/early 19th centuries, the phenomenon we now know as Chinese Export Silver was well-entrenched. It happened simply because silver, as a material, was more plentiful in China than anywhere else and the art of silversmithing had been perfected to such a high level. It was also relatively cheap, compared to Western counterparts. This capability was quick to be recognized; merchants and sea-captains began to bring western silver items as examples to be copied, while the demand for bespoke items also increased. It is because of this surge of requests to “copy” that we find a peculiarly Chinese Export Silver circumstance mainly in relation to silver created in the Early China Trade Period.

It is often referred to as “pseudo-hallmarks” and most Chinese silversmiths adopted them. But, initially they did so unwittingly, since when they were asked to faithfully copy items brought from the West by ship captains and merchants, many of them had British hallmarks – and so the silversmiths did exactly that – copied “faithfully”, hallmarks and all! Yet, not fully understanding the significance of the information these marks imparted, a degree of artistic license was often applied; date letters were replaced by a letter that might have been the first Latin letter of the silversmith’s name, often using Pinyin transliteration. Nearly all silver created during this early period was of Western form, sometimes manifesting some eccentric anomalies – again, often unwittingly. Occasionally, for example, a Chinese silversmith might produce a creamer as a miniature lidded teapot!

Here [left] we have the mark used by the Canton silversmith Cutshing. While he used several version during the years 1830-1895, this particular mark he sued only between 1850-1860.

 

At first glance it could be mistaken for an English hallmark, but on closer inspection we can see the crudeness of the lion, crowned leopard and monarch’s head. The “k” is meaningless; the insertion of the “CU” an example of artistic license. The mark [far right] is another example of a Cutshing mark on the hallmark theme;the mark [near right] is yet another Cutshing mark – uniformity was not something makers’ marks had throughout the Chinese Export Period.

Of the twelve known silversmiths of this first manufacturing period, the maker who has “celebrity” status is one we simply know as WE WE WC. The true name of this maker has never yet been discovered; we will assume it is a he, rather than a they. He [if we

may call him that] operated between 1820-1880 in Canton. We can see from the marks that consistency was again not part his modus operandi, but the particular peculiarity of this maker and his mark is that it almost definitely must have begun when “faithfully” copying a silver item from the London-based silversmiths William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner,the mark we see [below right] – the “F” for Fearn probably mistaken for an E.                                            

It is during the middle period of Chinese Export Silver manufacturing that we see a change in appearance of the silver produced and the marks makers used ob them.  Chinese motifs begin to appear on items, sometimes subtle additions to classical Western forms, sometimes a more blatant disregard for them. It is also during this period we see more silversmiths appearing. Makers’ marks also changed in as much as some makers began to use marks that combined Latin initials of the maker along with a mark using Chinese characters or ideograms of the actual artisan silversmith that carried out the work under the roof of the master silversmith. This latter mark is known as the “chopmark”. This indicates that makers probably ran workshops where several experienced silver makers operated, in fact it is generally believed that Chinese silversmiths employed more of a small production line method – each expert carrying out an essential element of the making until the master artisan silversmith [the face behind the Chinese chopmark] finished it.

The use of Chinese chopmarks are historically very much part of Chinese culture, originally reserved for Imperial court documents and letters and later incorporated into society as a whole, they are still in use today.  They are an ancient form of signature seal, with some of the earliest chop marks being around three thousand years old. The use of Chinese chopmarks are historically very much part of Chinese culture, originally reserved for Imperial court documents and letters and later incorporated into society as a whole, they are still in use today.  

Chopmarks also appear on silver Trade Dollars; originally as an authentication mark but later as merchant stamps that not only attested to the coin’s authenticity, but also acted as a form of advertising for the merchant. Coins often appear with several merchant chops on them.

Above right are two maker’s marks of a silversmith who operated between 1830-1910; Wo Shing, a Canton-based maker who later also opened in Shanghai towards the end of the 19th century. A maker that spans both the middle and final periods of Chinese Export Silver. The Chinese ideogram chopmark is that of the artisan maker working under Wo Shing [WS].

The last manufacturing period of Chinese Export Silver is where we find some 70 known silversmiths operating. As with preceding periods, makers’ marks are equally non-consistent in format.

© 2012, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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