Chinese civilization has been around long enough to make any culture seem a mere flash in the pan in comparison. China, though some moments were brighter than others, continued to flourish even while the West slumbered in the Dark Ages. China’s history since 1949 has been dire, but there are signs that the restless Chinese dragon may yet shake free from the bonds of communism. 

Traditional Chinese jewelry is marked by intricate, enlightened craftsmanship spiced with poetry and symbolism. First seen in the spring of 2022 at the Pacific branch of L’ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts in Hong Kong, “Gold and Treasures, 3000 Years of Chinese Ornaments” is drawn from the Mengdiexuan collection of Betty Lo and Kenneth Chu and consists of objects spanning from ancient China to the end of its last dynasty, the Qing, in 1911.1 With its focus on gold, the exhibition features quotations on its walls from Ovid, Pliny the Elder, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, and others on the metal and its qualities. In one example, Wei Boyang, a Chinese alchemist from the second century A.D., remarks that “Gold is the most valuable thing in all the world because it is immortal and never gets rotten. Alchemists eat it, and they enjoy longevity.” Though I have difficulty in understanding anything scientific, the exhibition’s co-curators, Olivier Segura (also the scientific director at L’ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts) and Valentina Bruccoleri (an expert in Chinese art at the Sorbonne), effectively educate the viewer on the science behind the jewelry, providing useful information on the chemical properties of gold and its abundance in China’s rivers and mountains. 

Traditional Chinese jewelry on display in “Gold and Treasures, 3000 Years of Chinese Ornaments.” Photo: Benjamin Chelly.

As collectors, Lo and Chu have long sought to share their treasures as widely as possible, and they have presented more than six exhibitions in Hong Kong and abroad. In 1994, the couple lent 113 pieces to appear in the show “Adornment for Eternity: Status and Rank in Chinese Ornaments from the Mengdiexuan Collection” at the Denver Art Museum, followed by other venues in the United States and London. More recently, in 2013, another exhibition, “Radiant Legacy: Ancient Chinese Gold from the Mengdiexuan Collection,” appeared for six months at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s art museum, and Lo and Chu have donated 946 golden and silver objects to the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Lo Wai (1923–1998), Betty Lo’s father, was an artist and collector of jade and porcelain, and he passed on his love of ornaments, ancient and more recent, to his daughter and son-in-law. The Mengdiexuan collection contains objects of bronze (the couple’s first love in metalwork), silver, and gold from central China, the country’s northwest and Eurasian steppes, Mongolia, and the Himalayas. Not surprisingly, almost all of the objects come from the imperial court and nobility. Chinese collections often take their titles from novels or poetic allusions, and this one’s name, “Mengdiexuan,” means “Butterfly Dream Studio.”  

The exhibition emphasizes the remarkable craftsmanship of ancient Chinese jewelers. A Ming-dynasty hair bun depicting the likeness of a bat and dragon (fifteenth to seventeenth century) and Tang-dynasty hairpins made from mother-of-pearl and glass (seventh to eighth century) reveal an astounding degree of finesse. 

Hairpin with phoenix design, Gold, Song dynasty (960–1279), Mengdiexuan Collection. Photo: Picspark Co.

Two vital figures in Chinese mythology, the masculine dragon and the feminine phoenix, are brought to life in the exhibition. The dragon often represented the emperor, especially when it possessed five claws, a design forbidden outside the imperial court during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The exhibition features a Yuan hair ornament of a dragon, exquisite sea-dragon earrings from the Liao dynasty (907–1125), and a swirling gold clothing ornament with bird and peony motifs from the Song to Ming dynasties (960–1644). Jewelry of the phoenix, a symbol of renewal known for feminine grace and virtue, was commonly worn by the empress, princesses, and concubines. The exhibition shows a Song-dynasty (960–1279) golden hairpin depicting a fierce phoenix perched on a branch about to take flight with intricately detailed feathers and flowing, gold flames.

Lantern-shaped earrings, Gold, Ming dynasty, 1368–1644, Mengdiexuan Collection. Photo: Picspark Co.

A smaller number of objects feature human figures. An ornament for the hair dating from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) depicts a scene from the traditional Chinese musical drama Four Horsemen Surrender to the Tang (ca. 1368–1644). Though the human form was not a regular feature in Chinese jewelry, female deities of Buddhism and Taoism are represented on occasion, such as in a pair of golden earrings with a central pearl from the Song to Ming dynasties (960–1644) believed to show Guanyin, a bodhisattva of compassion and mercy in Taoism and Buddhism. More plentiful in the exhibition are objects meant to give good luck to the wearer. To understand the function of talismans in Chinese culture, it helps to know something about Taoism and Buddhism. A gold and silver ornament for the hair made during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) is decorated with eight Buddhist symbols showing the path of the Dharma: the eternal knot, the wheel of law, the two golden fish, the conch, the parasol, the urn of treasures, the banner of victory, and the lotus flower. A pair of earrings from the Ming dynasty take the form of a lantern, a celebratory object considered to bring good fortune as we can still see in the Chinese New Year’s Lantern Festival, a tradition estimated to be nearly two thousand years old. Birds and insects were viewed as signs of prosperity and longevity and often portrayed in jewels. The cicada, which symbolized regeneration and longevity, appears in a small ornament from the Ming dynasty, with a golden head and wings attached to a captivating ruby-red body made from tinted glass. 

This beautifully presented exhibition will delight anyone who treasures exquisite, fine craftsmanship or is interested in Chinese artisanship. Entrance is free of charge, though it is useful to book beforehand.

  1.   “Gold and Treasures: 3,000 Years of Chinese Ornaments” opened at L’ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts, Paris, on December 1, 2022, and remains on view through April 14, 2023.

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