Chinese Fingernail Protectors

April 02, 2019 Posted by: David R. Daly
Chinese woman wearing silver fingernail guards.

Pictured on the right, these two silver fingernail guards were probably collected by Charles Longfellow during his visit to China in 1873. Fingernail guards were worn by high ranking Chinese women during the latter half of the 19th century. The photograph on the left, from one of Charles Longfellow’s photograph albums and dated 1873, shows an upper class Chinese woman wearing two fingernail guards on her left hand. Long fingernails were a mark of high status indicating that one did not have to engage in manual labor, and in order to protect the nails from breaking Qing noblewomen wore metal guards. The guards were very often worn in pairs, one on the little finger and another on the ring finger.

 Nail guards were often highly decorated. The pair pictured here have repoussé decoration featuring plants and a Chinese “endless knot” symbol at the base. In some Chinese traditions the endless knot is symbolic of a long, prosperous life. Other decorative motifs commonly found on nail guards were bats, coins, and various Buddhist symbols. As with this pair of guards, the backsides were often pierced to provide ventilation. Some nail guards were inlayed with gold or silver, precious stones, enamel, tortoiseshell or other materials.

Last updated: April 2, 2019

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