The majority of Chinese Export Silver (CES) was produced in a fairly well defined period between 1785 and 1914. This silver wasn’t originally made for export but was commissioned or purchased by spice and tea traders, diplomats stationed in China, or travellers to Asia in the 19th century. The CES trade initially developed in Canton (Guangzhou, Guangdong), spreading to Shanghai and Hong Kong in the mid-1800s.
CES was only produced in small quantities, mainly commissions, and at a very reasonable cost. Europeans spent many weeks travelling by boat to reach China, and so took it upon themselves to sojourn for weeks and even months at a time to make the journey worthwhile. This allowed commissions to be designed and made to very personal requirements, this is reflected in the individual nature of pieces produced. Initially, Chinese silversmiths and craftsmen copied pieces of Western silver, down to the finest detail, including the use of pseudo hallmarks. Chinese silver manufacturers didn’t strike a mark to symbolise the year in which their pieces were made. A Circa date can be ascertained either by style, a way in which a piece has been made, maker mark or combination of all.
In the mid-period of CES’s creation, Chinese motifs began to appear as understated additions to the usual Western imitations. Along with this change, Chinese maker’s marks were starting to be used on CES. These marks – called chopmarks – suggest that several silversmiths worked together under the tutelage of a master silversmith to carry out the creation of CES pieces. Research suggests that silversmith’s shops functioned in a production-line fashion, with a variety of experts carrying out different sections of the crafting. Once the piece was near completion, it would be the artisan silversmith who finished it with a Chinese chopmark.
Later in the timeline of CES production, with increased demand and an expansion in trade, Western influence was superseded by indigenous Chinese designs incorporating what have since become ubiquitous motifs: dragons, bamboo, lotus and plum blossoms.
Following the onset of the First World War in 1914, and Japan’s subsequent increase in influence over China, CES production and trade was gradually discontinued.