In ancient times, Chinese scholars tended to study at old-style private schools, or be home schooled, where they would write calligraphy or work on paintings. In the winter, their hands and feet would go numb from the bitter cold. When officials or noblemen went to their offices or visited friends, it was simply too cold for them to warm themselves by the fire in their carriages or sedan chairs.
This led to a new creation—a warmer that could be carried by hand without scalding. The hand warmer later became widely used for study, among the common people, and even in the royal palace.
The hand warmer is thought to have originated during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.), in the State of Chu. The environment there was very humid, so the people would burn vanilla in a stove with small holes to dry the air. The fragrance from the burner would keep mosquitoes and flies away. Later, the ancient craftsmen got inspiration from such burners and designed the easily carried hand warmers.
The production of hand warmers reached its peak during the Ming and Qinq dynasties (1368-1912 A.D.). In the early days, copper was generally used in the production process. It was more suitable than silver, iron, and porcelain because its thermal conductivity was better, and the copper made peoples’ hands feel warmer. It also allowed the craftsman more room for artistry, while minimising the risk of breakage or corrosion.
The Qing Palace hand warmer was specifically designed for the imperial court. It was the best of its kind, and could only be used by the royal family. The majority of the hand warmers were gold-gilt or cloisonné enamelled. The cloisonné technique utilized fine and delicate copper threads, welded to the outlines of the designs on the metal embryo. They were then lacquered and enamelled with various colours. Finally, they would be fired, polished, and gilded. The designs would usually be animals or symbols with auspicious connotations, such as cranes, deer, double bats, flowers, or the Chinese character for longevity.
With changing times, the copper hand warmers ceased to be used in everyday life, and were eventually forgotten by the people. However, they made a comeback in the early 1990s, when they emerged in books and magazines, or at auctions. Their exotic appearance and magnificent craftsmanship caught the eyes of many.
The highest auction price for a hand warmer was for a partially gilded work from the late Ming Dynasty. While its initial estimated price range was HK$800,000 to HK$1 million, it ended up selling for a startling HK$3.032 million.
While other genuine hand warmers have sold in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, many counterfeits have also emerged, as their popularity has increased.
A collector might like to look at the bottom of the hand warmer. If they see copper, its very likely it was made in the late Qing Dynasty, or early Republic of China periods. If it is made of red copper with plain designs, it might be from the Ming Dynasty. If the design if frivolous and glossy, it is most likely work from the Qing Dynasty.
The colour of the rust can also be a clue. Boiling soda water can be used to brush the rust—and artificial rust will immediately fall away.
Hand warmers are supposed to be handmade, while counterfeits are usually cast. A look at the welding line between the bottom and the body of the hand warmer can distinguish the genuine from the fake.