Two Very Fine Silver-Gilt, Pierced Fingernail Guards
length (each): 11.4cm, combined weights: 22g
This is the finest pair of Chinese fingernail guards that we have seen. They are of gilded (gold-plated) silver that has been pierced with extremely fine plum blossom and other motifs. The edges of the guards have fine, engraved key-fret borders.
The guards are long and sculptural with pleasing proportions and patina. They are without maker’s marks, and they have a good weight in the hand.
Fingernail guards or protectors were worn by a very elite group – Manchu court ladies of the late Qing dynasty. Long nails became synonymous with a life of luxury and having servants. As such long fingernails were valuable status symbols and so were protected with guards such as the two shown here. Typically not all the nails were protected but rather one, two or three on each hand. The Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908) was a very conspicuous wearer of such guards. She loved sitting for elaborately staged photographs and many of these show her wearing long fingernail guards but only ever two or three on each of her hands.
UK art market
Inventory no.: 1951
The Dowager Empress Cixi, wearing prominent finger nail guards, late 19th century.