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Kingfisher Headdresses from China



Since ancient times, Chinese poets have praised the plumage of the kingfisher, a bird widely found in the tropical regions of Asia.

The brilliant turquoise-blue is not a pigment but results from the way their transparent feathers refract light. By the Song dynasty (960–1278), portraits of empresses showed them wearing headdresses adorned with kingfisher ornaments. Few examples of this fragile artistry have survived, and the earliest ones come from the tomb of the Wanli Emperor (reigned 1572–1620), in which archaeologists found four elaborate kingfisher crowns worn by his empresses.

J6210 Int Press

Cap, Qing dynasty (1644–1912), 18th–19th century

China. Promised gift of Barbara and David Kipper

While at first glance the vivid turquoise portions of this cap appear to be stone, they are in fact delicate kingfisher feathers, precisely cut and carefully pasted in place. At the center, a phoenix with a peacock-like tail is flanked by a pair of dragons.

The vivid feathers were expensive, with the most prized specimens imported from Cambodia and Vietnam. Artisans cut them to shape before painstakingly pasting the feathers onto gilded metal backing that formed the structure of the headdresses. Precious and semiprecious stones such as rubies, agate, and jadeite as well as other valuable materials including amber, coral, and pearls added to the splendid effect. Although the most sumptuous examples were worn by empresses and consorts, aristocratic and wealthy women also wore kingfisher crowns and jewelry on special occasions such as birthdays and weddings. Popular motifs—bats, butterflies, dragons, and phoenixes—symbolized various aspects of good fortune.

This exhibition brings together over 20 objects crafted from these extraordinarily beautiful feathers, all promised gifts from Barbara and David Kipper. They include ornate headdresses as well as smaller pieces of jewelry and hairpins, which provided a less cumbersome touch of glamour.


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