Chinese Kingfisher Feather Hair Pin | 1900-1920

Very little is known about these ornaments other than the craft. The use of bird feathers has been prevalent in many cultures since ancient times, but no culture/people has refined the use of one bird’s feathers as beautifully and exquisitely as the Chinese have done with the iridescent Kingfisher Feather. From large, ornamented, lacquer panel screens, to lavish headdresses and hats, down to small, fine, elegant jewelry such as earrings and hair pins, the Chinese have elevated this beautiful, delicate feather to great technical and visually creative heights.

The piece is made up of silver components cut and laid to form floral patterns inlaid with kingfisher feathers. To each of the items are attached coiled, metal springs. The overall design is symmetrical; and follows the tradition and is composed of Kingfisher feathers, and flora and fauna embellished with small jade, coral, and ‘beads’ of coloured glass, and ruby highlights on silver wire. It is signed on the shaft, but we have been unable to translate the characters. Condition: There is a small wire repair on the shaft of the hairpiece that does not interfere with the beauty or function of the piece. Dimensions: 5”w x 4-3/4”h x 2”d (outermost edges).

Additional Information —

The use of kingfisher feathers in ornaments, and particularly in hair ornaments, thus appears to have a long history in China. There is little information available describing how kingfisher feather ‘enameling’ was actually undertaken during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before the gluing process could begin however, the metal framework had to be prepared. This was done by soldering gallery wire to the edges and surfaces of the metal base, creating partitions defining the motif. The different components would then have been soldered together to make three-dimensional forms, and the feather filaments cut to size and glued.

By all accounts, then, the process was painstaking. Presumably, the labour entailed in producing these ornaments, and indeed in first catching the kingfishers to strip them of their feathers, translated into high prices for the consumer. The possession of ornaments made from the feathers of kingfishers would have signified wealth and status. Kingfisher feathers appear frequently among the items of the imperial household during the Qing period and earlier. They were not restricted to those of Qing imperial descent, however, and appear to have been popular among wealthy Han, Manchu and other smaller ethnic groups, although the manner in which they were worn varied. Ornaments, particularly hair ornaments, made from kingfisher feathers were often part of a bride’s trousseau. The use of kingfisher feathers not only displayed wealth and status but also enhanced the wearer’s beauty.

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