East Meets West
Chinese Export Silver
“Chinese export silver” is a term that encompasses all silverware made in China from the late 18th century through the early 19th century. By the mid-18th century the West had been trading in Chinese silks, teas, and spices for over a century, but the market for Chinese export silver did not flourish until a dramatic fall in the international value for silver, which led China to finally loosen its restrictions on allowing silver to leave the country.
Crafted from melted Spanish silver, which had historically been the only currency Chinese merchants would accept, it falls largely into three periods: the early-, late- and post-China Trade. In the early trade period, Chinese artisans reproduced or copied European and American styles, however, as cultural and commercial exchanges grew between East and West, Chinese silversmiths began to incorporate Asian decoration such as dragons, bamboo, and Chinese landscapes. Wealthy international clients often presented Chinese silver as gifts or prizes complete with engraved inscriptions, providing a tangible link to the past and a historical record of its use and importance.
Nearly all pieces were stamped by the workshop, some with imitation English hallmarks unwittingly copied by Chinese silversmiths who had no knowledge of their significance. Many Chinese firms rose to prominence, such as Wang Hing, who started as a jade dealer in Canton and would become the most famous and prolific maker of export silver by the late 19th century. Chinese export silver has seen a resurgence in popularity, with intricately decorated pieces featuring dragons or cranes being some of the most sought after.