Tea chest

DATE: ca.1770 (made)
PLACE: China (made)
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES: Mother-of-pearl, carved, engraved and pierced, with silver and metal fittings

During the 18th century the cost of tea was so high that it was regarded as a luxury product and enjoyed only by the privileged few. As a result, tea leaves were stored inside lockable tea chests or caddies. As these containers were placed on the table, where they would be seen by guests, they were often made from costly materials and elaborately decorated. By Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1735-1796), mother of pearl inlay was often used as a decorative material to embellish tea chests or caddies as an alternative to lacquer. This tea chest’s detailed floral decoration and fretwork would have appealed to Western fashion for chinoiserie, which developed in Europe during the second half of the 18th century. The circular recesses would have originally contained two canisters for storing two different types of tea.