This set of carved openwork concentric ivory balls with cloud-and-dragon decoration consists of one larger set of concentric balls, a supporting plate, a stand, a smaller set of concentric balls, and a base. The work looks similar to a hat stand, but may have served for decorative purposes only.
The outermost ball of the bigger set measures 12 cm in diameter and is decorated with dragons flying through clouds in high relief. Inside this sphere are 24 layered balls with delicate openwork carved geometric patterns, and each sphere can be turned independently. The smaller set of spheres, decorated with the same motifs, contains nine layers. The stand is decorated with the Eight Immortals, landscapes, and figurines in openwork carving.
This type of ivory ball were made in the Guangdong region during the mid- to late-Qing dynasty. While some were presented to the Qing court, most were exported to the European market.
The Making Process
The most puzzling thing about this amazing piece is probably how these delicate balls were made. This technique fascinated the Chinese as well as the European people, and granted its nickname as the “demon’s balls.” The processes of making a demon’s ball usually consists of the following six stages:
Steps two to four consist of the intricate cutting necessary to produce nested balls. These steps require the use of a lathe. Another important trick is the drilling of evenly spaced perpendicular holes into the outer surface. In fact this is based on a geometrical concept.
Get the Ball Rolling
From the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, luxury ivory demon’s balls caught on in Europe and were seen by Western museums as representative of the curious and wonderful craftwork of late Chinese culture.
According to recent research, the pinnacle of Chinese ivory craftwork bears similarities with the use of lathes and cutting in the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—in terms of manufacturing processes, the use of lathes and cutting tools, the geometry behind the hole boring and stratification, and use of screws. In addition, Holy Roman Empire ivory goods made using lathes were also included in the Qing imperial collection.
Although lathe craftwork developed in China early on, and a fourteenth-century account describes multi-layer ivory demon’s balls, it is quite possible that mature techniques were imported from the Holy Roman Empire and initiated a major breakthrough in Cantonese ivory cutting.
There has been mutual influence between East and West since ancient times. The roundness of the demon’s balls reminds us that the world too is round.
When we are appreciating this delicate object on display, please do remember that all ivory came from an elephant’s body and many elephants were killed for their ivory. The slaughter of majestic wildlife needs to be stopped, the United Nations had called on people around the world to protect endangered wildlife. To save the elephants and rhinos from extinction, everyone must do their part.
Save the Elephants!! Ivory Collections Only Belong in Museums.
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