A Brief Introduction to Chinese Silver

“Chinese Export Silver” refers to silverware produced in China from 1780 to the 1940’s. The name is somewhat misleading, since it is not silver that was produced exclusively for the West. All silver produced in China during this period bears the name, yet it is impossible to determine which items were specifically for the West. 

This wide and complex silver-making period is best divided into four major manufacturing periods: “The Formative China Trade Period” (1685-1757), “The Early China Trade Period” (1757-1842), “The Late China Trade Period” (1842-1895) and “The Post China Trade & Republic Period” (1895-1940).

During the formative and early China trade periods, from early 18th century to the Treaty of Nanking (1842), a significant amount of Chinese silver was produced by Canton-based workshops. These pieces were often made in the neo-classical American and British Georgian styles and are distinguished by exceptionally heavy weight and high quality. This phenomenon rose out of the dramatic reduction of silver mining in South America, which in turn created a scarcity of silver in Britain and America. 

The silver workshops, in the main, remained anonymous to Westerners but the merchant shops they produced for have become well-known. Sun Shing and Lin Chong and others with undocumented full names, used to mark their silver with pseudo English marks (the most peculiar case is probably the maker “WE WE WC”, imitating the London hallmark of William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner). It is not known quite why the “pseudo-hallmark” phenomenon happened; there are several conjectured reasons.

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