Since the 16th Century, decorative Chinese ceramics have found their way into some of the most wealthy homes on the Western coast. Ginger jars were a particular favourite among the aristocracy and intelligentsia of the time and were coveted for their decorative beauty rather than their practical use of storing spice.
The first ginger jars or "guan" were produced in the royal kilns of the ruling emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE–207 BCE). They were made for the purpose of storing herbs and spices. As popularity grew for ginger in the West, these jars were used to store and ship the spice all across Europe.
Exquisite porcelain imports only grew in popularity and by the 18th Century, it is estimated one million pieces had been shipped to London, UK. Every curio cabinet contained at least one decorative item, and Chinese ginger jars were amongst them. The Victorians and Parisiennes loved to put their ornate ginger jars out on display as a sort of status symbol.
The blue and white ceramics were immensely popular. Pottery in 1500s in the West was rustic, earthy, thick and unbecoming. But the porcelain from the East was delicate, translucent, and a pristine white with an appealing sheen. The technique used to create such beautiful objects mystified most of Europe at the time, even though many tried to replicate it. Some regarded porcelain as precious as gold, while others went into debt to acquire it. From the Qin Dynasty to the Kangxi period, some of the most valuable porcelain can be found in museums like the Victoria and Albert in London, UK.
Today antique ginger jars are still highly prized for their decorative beauty and value. Regal in style with plump, pumped-up shoulders, small mouths and domed lids, ginger jars come in a variety of designs and decorations, depending on their origin.
Because of their popularity in the West, you can often find antique ginger jars at auction. Some go for just a few hundred dollars, with rarer specimens fetching in the tens of thousands. These jars are the perfect item for porcelain collectors looking for a good investment or anyone wanting to get started in collecting Chinese ceramics.
When you’re searching for antique ginger jars at auction, you’ll find them listed under design and period of creation. Some of the design categories include:
- Blue and white ginger jars
- Red, orange, yellow ginger jars
- Imari ginger jars
- Famille verte ginger jars
- Famille rose ginger jars
Blue and white ginger jars
Blue-and-white patterned ginger jars are perhaps the most recognizable and desirable. Some of the oldest jars in existence are made of cobalt blue and white porcelain dating back to the 9th century or Tang Dynasty. Blue and white ginger jars were so desirable, over the centuries many copies were made as a kind of tribute to the original design, complete with reign marks, making them very difficult to date. Only an expert would be able to spot an original; however, these replicas also carry great value.
Red, orange, yellow ginger jars
Moving from the cool colour of blue to the warmer hues of red, orange, and yellow, these vibrant ginger jars were reserved for royalty and with such intricate designs were quite possibly commissioned as ceremonial gifts. Quite rare to find, especially with lids intact, these jars are highly coveted. Jars dating from 1662-1722 (the Kangxi period) and the early Qing dynasty fetch the highest price at auction.
Imari ginger jars
The predominant colours in these ornately decorated ginger jars are red, blue and gold. Created mainly for decorative purposes and export luxury goods, Imari ginger jars enjoyed a long and prosperous production period from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Specimens from the 17th and 18th centuries generally fetch in the high thousands at auction, whereas those from the 19th century can be found for a few hundred dollars.
Famille verte ginger jars
When it comes to collecting Chinese ceramics, Famille Verte is one category you’re going to see again and again. Simply translated as the ‘green family’, Famille Verte uses a five-colour process using yellow, blue, red, purple, and green, to create a palette that is predominantly green. Some of the oldest ginger jars in this category date back to the Ming dynasty. Throughout the period, the five-colour enamel technique was developed to produce richer shades of green with an appealing translucent sheen.
Famille rose ginger jars
By the 18th century, greens gave way to the Famille Rose colour palette with its softer, rosier hues of pink and carmine and an opaque overglaze. These colours were introduced to China by the Jesuits in 1685 and were named "yangcai" or "foreign colours." Famille Rose remained in favour until about 1756. Many of the floral designs in this range were inspired by the artist Giuseppe Castiglione.
The more you discover about ginger jars, the more you uncover about Chinese ceramics and its rich and mysterious past. Perhaps that is part of the thrill of collecting.