Theater & art

Frame by frame

Chinese ivory gone berserk


SALEM — Occasionally, as an art critic, you come across an object so marvelous it seems utterly berserk. When it happens, quite often you look around and realize that you are in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

Case in point: this single ball of ivory carved into 15 concentric spheres.

Fifteen. Try to get your head around that. I have been trying ever since I first saw it perched atop a carved wooden stand inside a glass vitrine — without luck.



I have read a description of how it was made, kindly provided to me by PEM curator Karina Corrigan. And yet I still can’t shake this feeling of head-scratching, eye-rubbing dismay.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The piece was made in Guangzhou, China, in the late 19th century. It was almost certainly made for foreign patrons, either on commission or speculatively. There had been a market for this kind of stuff (stuff?! I ask you!) among Europe’s monarchs and aristocrats for centuries. The carving of spheres within spheres in China itself goes back to the 14th century, if not before.

In this example, the outside layer — so lusciously carved with abundant floral motifs — is by far the thickest of the 15 spheres. The surfaces of the interior layers have been pierced to create various intricate geometric patterns.

But really: How?

It’s what we all want to know. But frankly, my brain just stops at a certain point.


Still, if you’re dying for an explanation I can refer you to the Rev. William C. Milne, who went to China, saw similar objects being carved, and described the process in a book, “Life in China,” published in 1857:

“A piece of ivory, made perfectly round, has several conical holes worked into it, so that their several apices meet at the centre of the globular mass. The workman then commences to detach the innermost sphere of all. This is done by inserting a tool into each hole, with a point bent and very sharp. That instrument is so arranged as to cut away or scrape the ivory through each hole, at equi-distances from the surface. The implement works away at the bottom of each conical hole successively, until the incisions meet. In this way, the innermost ball is separated; and to smooth, carve and ornament it, its various faces are, one after the other, brought opposite one of the largest holes. The other balls, larger as they near the outer surface, are each cut, wrought and polished precisely in the same manner. The outermost ball of course is done last of all.”

Of course. Have another coffee. Read it again. It helps.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at