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Collecting Snuff Bottles
( Article orginally published March 1954 )
When Mrs. Edward D. Sultan of Honolulu bought a strangely designed Oriental snuff bottle during a casual visit to a New York antique shop some years ago, she little realized that it would be the beginning of a hobby that would take her to Hong Kong's "Thieves Market" in search of new specimens for her collection.
Mrs. Sultan's collection now numbers some 300 pieces. It has attracted considerable attention among hobbyists in America's mid-Pacific territory. Every piece is insured. Since buying her original piece in New York, Mrs. Sultan has been steadily adding to her collection, mainly through acquisitions by her husband, who makes frequent business trips to the Orient.
Mrs. Sultan accompanied her husband on one of his trips in the early part of 1953, and it was then that she paid her visit to the famous Thieves Market. Her trained eye spotted an unusual piece in the dusty corner of a shop.
"The owner sold it to me for a reasonable amount," she said, "but if he had known I was a collector he probably would have boosted the price."
Many of the bottles are cut from one piece of rock crystal. The inside surfaces display intricately engraved and decorated scenes of small figures and ideographs. Vegetable and mineral dyes were used for coloring, according to Mrs. Sultan.
The habit of carrying snuff bottles in the Orient is said to have originated in the early part of the eighteenth century. The snuff was first brought from Mexico by Jesuit priests. It become popular in the Imperial Court and was believed to be a cure-all by Chinese doctors.
At first, snuff was so expensive that only the Chinese aristocracy could afford it. They carried the snuff bottles in their sleeves or in their hands. Handling jade is said to give it a glossy smoothness and give the green a deeper hue.
When snuff became cheaper and more plentiful in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Chinese aristocracy disdained it and little is used today by the wealthy.
The Chinese exported large numbers of snuff bottles to Europe in the early eighteenth century, particularly those of porcelain and variegated glass. They were often called "tear bottles" because their use brought tears to the eyes. In Holland, imported Chinese snuff bottles were frequently used to hold unguents.
In addition to jade and rock crystal bottles, Mrs. Sultan's collection includes those of amethyst, jasper, amber, carnelian, agate, coral, aquamarine, Pekin glass, carved cinnabar and porcelain.
Another of Mrs. Sultan's hobbies is collecting miniature wine and liquor bottles. It now numbers nearly 600.