Chinese wooden vinaigrettes, small filigree containers meant to be worn about the person to disperse perfume, are among the most exquisite of Chinese antiques. If you missed the previous post on silver vinaigrettes, please go there first to read the basics about these miniature works of art.
I apologize in advance for the large number of pictures, but these are among my favorite objects, and even after cutting down I still wanted to show some of the infinite variety in which vinaigrettes can be found.
Most of these are made of boxwood, which is a good fined-grained wood to take intricate carving. The rectangular ones are usually about one and a half inches long, excluding any lions on top. (The very last photo will better show their relative sizes.) Usually the top or bottom will come off to receive the scent packet, or there is a sliding panel on the narrow side. Many of these feature elaborate meander (including “Greek Key”) borders surrounding the central design.
1 This example is made in the less common cylindrical form, but still features the usual mythological scene within keyed borders, and a nicely-carved lion on top. These lions become a common feature on wooden vinaigrettes.
2 Most wooden vinaigrettes are made of light-colored boxwood, but here is one carved from a darker wood.
3 This spectacular example is lacquered a beautiful coral color. The carving is finely detailed, both in the scene and in the furred lion on top.
4 This one is in a tall, narrow form, about 4 inches tall in total. The design is well separated from its filigree background, and the borders are especially elaborate. I also like the beaded and tasseled fringe carved at the bottom.
4b Here is a close-up of the lion cap on the top of the previous vinaigrette.
5 This colorful red and black model features bold carving.
6 This design with its shallower carving recalls the Art Deco era.
7 There is a lot of detail in this small vinaigrette. Notice the zig-zag border on the narrow side, another very common pattern in Chinese art.
8 Although the central carving is a little cursory, this example has well-proportioned key/meander borders.
9 Another detailed example, with a boating scene and unique borders.
10 This piece is solid, and so not a vinaigrette, although it is carved exactly the same way. It may have been used as a good-luck charm on its own, or an element in a more elaborate hanging charm. Note the traces of polychromy in the recessed areas.
11 This is a superbly well-carved and designed vinaigrette. Note that even the narrow side has two figures in it, instead of just geometric or floral designs.
12 The two figures here appear to be kissing, making this my only “erotic” vinaigrette. Too bad about the ink stain on the other side, although I am sure that was a bargaining point when I bought it!
13 Here is a unique heart-shaped design.
15 This piece has a varnished finish with a nice patina. Notice that the piercings in the narrow side have a Gothic effect to them.
16 Unusual loop-shaped borders, with again a “Gothic” quatrefoil design on the side.
19 With its design of dragonflies, this piece has a very Art Nouveau appearance, which is enhanced by the naturalistic and sinuous vine climbing up the side. It also features very delicate keyed borders.
20 I have never seen an entirely plain vinaigrette, although this simple leaf design with basic chip-carved borders comes close.
21 This more substantial example features a different design on all four sides, plus slightly rounded top and bottom pieces, of which the top lifts off to allow access to the interior.
We have covered many examples of vinaigrettes in wood and silver, but of course other materials were used, notably ivory, bone, horn, ceramic, gold and gemstones.
23 This cylindrical bone vinaigrette is notable for its lack of relief carving, although the round and star-shaped holes still give it an exotic or fancy look.
25 As a reminder, here is a group of silver vinaigrettes displayed together. The drawer size is 7.5 by 4 inches, giving a good idea of their actual size.
26 A similar group of wooden vinaigrettes, including many featured above. You can see their relative sizes, and the different colors and patinas of the wood.
These tiny vinaigrettes were one of the agreeable surprises that turned up when I started collecting Chinese antiques. Do you have a favorite type of miniature collectible? Let me know if you have a favorite among those displayed today (I numbered the photos to make them easier to refer to), and whether in general you prefer the silver or wooden versions.
Note: All of the Chinese vinaigrettes shown are in the collection of the author, as are the photos.