Chinese Ivory Ornament – object research

Ivory ornament
from China, before 1902; size: 65 mm.

The Chinese Puzzle Ball  –  8 concentric ivory balls, one within the other. Each ball is perforated with circular holes and an intricate pattern which differs by each ball. Mystery balls, as they’re sometimes called, are usually categorized as good luck charms because of their symbolic decorations and their shape of an eternal circle.

ivory ornament

1ornament 1ornament 2

Chinese arts and crafts have been known for centuries for their beauty, intricate details and mind-boggling craftsmanship. One of the epitomes of Chinese ornamental design is the Chinese puzzle ball, a sphere that is thought to have a strengthening influence on family unity. The balls come in many sizes and materials, most are handmade from wood, resin, ivory, soapstone or jade. The outermost sphere contains a number of smaller, freely moving balls, all enclosed one within another. The ball can be hung by a string or displayed on a specially designed stand.

Is it ok to play with them ? 

They are very fragile and it is important that they are not damaged. There is a tempting puzzle of trying to line up all the holes; but If you want to try use something soft. Smaller balls can be manipulated with a wooden toothpick. For larger ones be especially careful and use something like a quill.

How are puzzle balls made? 

The sphere is turned on a lathe then conical holes are drilled towards the center. The maker has a set of “L” shaped tools: the one with the longest upright has the shortest cutter, and the one with the shortest upright has the longest cutter.

Starting with the longest tool he lowers it to the narrow bottom of each hole in turn and rotates it to cut the innermost ball free. Then he gets the second tool which does not reach so far down the hole but can cut a wider arc and separates the second ball. He continues working from the innermost to outermost shell. For obvious reasons, usually only the outermost balls are elaborately carved.

“Copyright 2006 James Dalgety. The Puzzle Museum”.


Sketch of the ball


Here, are the quick sketches of the puzzle ball I draw at the beginning, butI forget to apload.


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