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Chinese Jewelry — History, Tradition, Culture, Types, Techniques, Symbolism, and Artifacts

Chinese jewelry culture encompasses history, development, traditional crafts, materials, classifications, and design.

 

It combines rich history, intricate craftsmanship, and profound cultural significance.

 

Delicate rings, exquisite earrings, stunning necklaces, and artsy bracelets – each ornament tells a story, crafted with precision and imbued with symbolism.

 

These pieces transcend mere accessories, becoming carriers of profound meanings.

Jade Decorated Filigree Gold Hairpin of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Jade Decorated Filigree Gold Hairpin of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Hubei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Chinese Rings in Ancient Culture — Informative Origin and Love Representative

Since the Neolithic era, the ring has been used as decoration and to protect fingers from drawing bows

Turquoise Decorated Ring of Dawenkou Culture (around 4500 BC — 2500 BC)

Turquoise Decorated Ring of Dawenkou Culture (around 4500 BC — 2500 BC) — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

In ancient China, an Emperor would have an honorable Empress and many imperial concubines in his palace. 

Hence, around the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC — 220 AD), silver and gold rings were worn by the queen and imperial concubines to show their physical conditions implicitly.

If one were in menstruation or pregnant, she would wear a gold ring on the left hand to imply that she's inconvenient to serve the emperor.

 

When someone was available, she would wear a silver ring on her left hand and move it to her right hand after spending the night with the emperor.

Gradually, this implicit method spread to nobles and officials, then to the civilian world.

Meanwhile, rings that were mostly made of valuable materials, such as gold, silver, and jade, became awards to accomplished officials and love tokens between couples. 

Starting from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279), the ring has become one of the essential betrothal gifts to the bride. 

Puyi's Wedding Ring, Carved with Quotes " Yun Zhi Jue Zhong"
Puyi's Wedding Ring, Carved with Quotes "Wei Jing Wei Yi"

Last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) Puyi's Wedding Ring, Carved with Quotes "Wei Jing Wei Yi, Yun Zhi Jue Zhong", From the Ancient "Book of Documents" (Shang Shu) — Palace Museum

Earring — From Self-Introspection to Beautiful Decoration

Earrings, or ear decorations, originated in the Neolithic era and were used as decorations or amulets.

No later than the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), two little jade pendants were hung on crowns and hats to be used as earplugs when they needed to rest.

Soon, the earplugs were regarded as a representative of self-discipline and introspection, a highly required characteristic in Chinese culture, for being an excellent way to avoid hearing and believing anything before careful consideration.

 

At the same time, they were also reminders of being humble and willing to listen to brilliant suggestions.

Jade Pendants on Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian) of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang

Jade Pendants on Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian) of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Gradually, these pendant earplugs spread from emperors and officials to scholars, then to women hanging them on their hairpins.

During the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), royal women started to pierce ears and wear earrings, especially those made of valuable pearls and gold.

Portrait of Emperor Zhao Gou's Queen, by Court Artist of the Song Dynasty

Portrait of Emperor Zhao Gou's Queen, by Court Artist of the Song Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Until the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912), wearing earrings as decorative jewelry became popular, especially among women when many stunningly beautiful and invaluable relics were produced.

Chinese Bracelet and Armlet — Ritual Origin and Art on Wrists

Chinese bracelets originated in the Neolithic era when people wore round-shaped decorations on wrists and arms, which were used to exorcise evils, pray for good luck,  or be beautiful.

Later, in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), it was officially set to use Jade Bi (Yubi) to worship heaven and Jade Cong (Yucong) to offer sacrifice to the earth. 

Jade Bi and Cong, both round shapes and carved with exquisite patterns, were believed to be the prototype of today's Chinese bracelets and armlets.

Click to read more about Ritual Jade Articles

Jade Cong of Liangzhu Culture (around 3300 BC — 2000 BC)

Jade Cong of Liangzhu Culture (around 3300 BC — 2000 BC) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Gradually, besides invaluable jade, more materials were applied to make bracelets and armlets, including gold, silver, gem, stone, etc. 

Because of their auspicious meaning and significant importance, bracelets have been used for centuries as the keepsake of love and betrothal gifts in China. 

Besides, different bead bracelets have also been popular, worn by both men and women as a symbol of believing in Buddhism or praying for good luck.

Chinese Necklace and Collar

Since the Neolithic period, people have started to wear things on their necks to keep records or serve specific functions in worship ceremonies.

Gradually, different necklaces have been used as decorations and representatives of one's social status or religion.

Traditional Chinese Jewelry Making Materials

Throughout history, many materials have been used to make jewelry, including gold, silver, copper, pearl, turquoise, coral, crystal, glass, lacquer, wood, clay, porcelain, fabric, etc. 

Among all materials, jade is the most special one. 

Jade articles have appeared since the Neolithic period, were holy ritual wares in ancient sacrificial ceremonies, and are considered a perfect representative of strength, benevolence, modesty, elegance, and purity. 

Click to Read More About Chinese Jade Culture

Chinese Jewelry Symbolism in History: Design and Hierarchy

 

Jewelry, as a ritual, blessing, or aesthetic decoration, has been an essential representative of one's social status. 

 

Materials didn't have many limitations; however, the use of colors and patterns followed the strict hierarchies in history until the last feudal empire Qing Dynasty ended in 1912.

 

Click to read more about Symbolic Colors and Lucky Patterns

Traditional Chinese Jewelry Making Techniques

From ancient times to the present day, Chinese jewelry has been celebrated for its exquisite designs and meticulous craftsmanship.

 

Traditional Chinese jewelry making is a fusion of artistry, cultural symbolism, and technical skill, producing pieces that stand as both adornments and expressions of thousands of years of craftsmanship.

 

These ancient techniques encompass a rich array of skills and methods that have been passed down through generations.

Jade Carving or Yu Diao

 

Carving an intact natural jade into exquisite artwork, Jade Carving is the most ancient technology in China, which is listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.

 

Jade is valuable, rugged, natural, and has irregular impurities and uneven colors.

 

Therefore, Jade Carving requires artisans' elaborate designs based on jade's unique natural characteristics, including shape, color, hardness, and impurities, while trying their best to avoid waste and mistakes. 

Peacock and Flower Patterns Jade Carved Hat Decoration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368)

Peacock and Flower Patterns Jade Carved Hat Decoration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Gold and Silver Threading or Jin Yin Cuo

 

Originated in the Shang (1600 BC — 1046 BC) and Zhou (1046 BC — 256 BC) Dynasties to decorate bronze wares, casting or painting gold and silver in carved grooves or surfaces of bronzes. 

As the Bronze Age ended, the Gold and Silver Threading technology also disappeared.

 

Recently, this skill has come back to the world, under the efforts of some talented artists. 

Gold and Silver Threading Bronzeware's Part of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Gold and Silver Threading Bronzeware's Part of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Engraving or Zan Ke

 

It appeared in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC), and engraving is a traditional technology to carve patterns or inscriptions on gold and silver wares. 

Exquisite Engravings on Gold Decoration of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

Exquisite Engravings on Gold Decoration of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Filigree Inlay or Huasi Xiangqian

Filigree Inlay originated in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) and is now a National Intangible Cultural Heritage, it is an exquisite, luxurious technology that was only used by royals. 

 

After filigreeing gold or silver, artisans would weave, fill, pile, or joint those metal threads into certain formations, then inlay using beautiful decorations, such as gems, crystals, jade, or pearl.

Filigree Inlaying Made Pavilion Shaped Earring of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Filigree Inlaying Made Pavilion Shaped Earring of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Kingfisher Feather Ornamentation or Dian Cui

 

Originating in the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) and reaching to peak in the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), the kingfisher feather had been used to inlay on gold, silver, or copper articles as decoration.

 

After the Qing Empire ended, to protect kingfishers, other materials, such as goose feathers or silk ribbons, were used as substitutions.

Kingfisher Feather and Gem Decorated Hairpin of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Kingfisher Feather and Gem Decorated Hairpin of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Cloisonné or Jingtailan

 

Having reached its peak during the Jingtai Emperor's reign period (1450 — 1457), Cloisonné or Jingtailan is an exquisite traditional craft in China that was exclusively used by royals in history. 

 

Cloisonné technology requires using copper, sometimes silver, to make the base mold, with copper wires welded on exquisitely, then fill these copper patterns with enamel glazes.

 

After being sintered several times and getting polished and gilded, the whole procedure would be completed.

 

Today, Cloisonné is still a popular technology used by more designers, from making jewelry to decorations. 

Cloisonné Cosmetic Box of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Cloisonné Cosmetic Box of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Yantai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Enamel or Shao Lan

 

Thrived in the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), enamel uses silver to make base mold, then filled enamel glaze in carved grooves or welded silver filigree patterns.

 

As a method to make beautiful silverware art, enamel is still a popular technology for jewelry and decoration. 

Enamel Headdress (Bianfang) of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Enamel Headdress (Bianfang) of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)