Metals and Mokume: The Ptarmigan Vase at the Audain Art Museum


George Paulding Farnham, Ptarmigan Vase, c. 1900–03, 63.5 cm high. NGC. Purchased 2011 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

One hundred and thirteen years ago, jewellery company Tiffany & Co. crafted a large decorative vase using precious metals from the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia.

The Ptarmigan Vase (1900–03) was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2011 and displayed in its European galleries the following year. It has now returned to its home province, on loan to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C.

“Having this piece on display in the museum is a unique opportunity for us,” said Audain Art Museum curator Darrin Martens in an interview with NGC Magazine. “It’s a national treasure, and to be able to partner with the National Gallery of Canada to share this piece of our cultural heritage with the people of British Columbia is important.”


George Paulding Farnham, Ptarmigan Vase (detail), c. 1900–03, 63.5 cm high. NGC. Purchased 2011 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

Named after the mine from which its metals were excavated, the Ptarmigan Vase is particularly prized for its impressive size and intricate craftsmanship. Designed by George Paulding Farnham — a Tiffany designer who had invested in the mines — the vase contains eighteen layers of gold, silver and copper bonded together in a Japanese process called mokume. Once fused, the metals were stretched, cut and hammered to progressively reveal the vase’s various layers, and acid was applied to its exterior to create a rough, textured finish. 

“The Japanese technique from which the vase was created is fascinating,” Suzanne Greening, Executive Director of the Audain Art Museum, told NGC Magazine. ”It’s a beautiful, refined, and exquisite piece of decorative art, and the fact that it was designed and crafted by Tiffany’s gives it a lovely spin.”

In addition to its craftsmanship, the vase is admired for its link to First Peoples. Its shape evokes the pottery and baskets created by Indigenous North Americans, while its decorative motifs pay tribute to the rich history of the region.

“The Ptarmigan Vase is of great historical significance by virtue of where the metals were mined, and the First Nations iconography that it features,” says Greening. “The Audain Art Museum represents the history of art in British Columbia, and the vase is an important part of that.”


George Paulding Farnham, Ptarmigan Vase (detail), c. 1900–03, 63.5 cm high. NGC. Purchased 2011 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

The front of the vase bears a decorative gold seal containing the British Columbia coat of arms, while a Latin cross indicates the latitude and longitude of the Ptarmigan Mine and nearby Mount Farnham (named after the designer himself). An eagle, crescent moon, and mask adorn the sides of the vase, while a silver ptarmigan perches on its rim. On the underside, the names of the vase’s various craftspeople are listed.


Installation view, Ptarmigan Vase (c. 1900–03), Audain Art Museum, 2016. Photo: Trevor Mills

“There is some intriguing First Nations imagery on the vase,” says Martens. “One really does have to spend some time looking at it.” 

The Audain Art Museum, commissioned by philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa, first opened to the public in March 2016. In addition to exhibitions, the Museum contains the Audain family’s personal collection of B.C. art. The Ptarmigan Vase is currently displayed in the Museum’s permanent gallery, between two Bill Reid bronzes. It will remain on view at the Museum for the next three years.

“The Audain Art Museum is an incredible legacy that Michael Audain and his wife have left to Canada, and we’re very fortunate to have it,” says Greening.

“I hope that those who visit our museum become more curious about Canada’s decorative arts after viewing the vase,” adds Martens. “Our province’s artistic and cultural heritage is incredibly rich and deep.”

The Ptarmigan Vase is on view at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C. until 2019. 

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