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Untarnished appeal of old silver

By Wang Jie (Shanghai Daily)

14:20, January 21, 2013

(Shanghai Daily)

Silver was once rare, more difficult to extract and more precious than gold in China where silver was made into distinctive jewelry, good-luck charms, ornaments and fine silverware.

Though it doesn't glitter like gold, it has a special luster and patina and because it's malleable, it is easily shaped and carved.

Silver objects and jewelry are frequently mentioned in novels about old China and often associated with feudal society. During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) silver represented feudal indulgence of the upper classes and was sometimes confiscated and melted.

Silver is now priced at US$31 an ounce.

Use of silver dates back to the Zhou Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago and because it was rare, it was often melted to create new works as tastes changed with dynasties.

Today it's difficult to find fine old pieces of silversmith's work, but there are collectors and experts on silver art and jewelry.

Hu Jianjun, associated professor at the academy of fine arts at Shanghai University, has been collecting and researching old silver since the year 2000. Last month she delivered a lecture on appreciation of old silver at the newly opened China Art Museum at the Shanghai World Expo site.

"I was not prepared for so many listeners," Hu says. "Maybe we all share a special feeling toward old Chinese silver, which used to be common in many families in the old days."

Hu focuses on pre-1949 silver, worked into dining ware, jewelry and ornaments. Some are finely wrought and are fashioned with fine enamel work and gemstones.

"If you go looking for real old silver today at antique market, the chance of finding quality pieces is nearly none," Hu says.

"In ancient times, silver was not abundant and craftsmen would melt work of earlier dynasties and fashion new works."

Another reason for scarcity was the change in women's hair styles and costume. At the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), many urban women cut their hair short, so they didn't need hair clasps or elaborate silver pins with dangling ornaments. Silver went out of fashion.

A major blow to silver making was the "cultural revolution."

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