Archive for December, 2009

the drawers with Kolinksy skins

what's in the drawers

the one I choose to examine

Here's his tag. Male, collected in winter, 2-11-1930 (80 years ago this coming February) in Siberia north west of North Korea

Mustela Sibirica, the Siberia Weasel aka Kolinksy

Kolinsky brushes and his tail

the tail of a Marten (like a Sable)

kolinsky on the left, Marten on the right

No such animal as Kolinsky (weasel) Sable (Marten)

To explain the last couple of pictures:  The Kolinsky is a weasel, Mustela sibirica.  The scientific name translates to Siberian Weasel which is, in fact, the only name it is called in the scientific literature.  The Sable is a species of Marten, a larger, dark brown, animal, in the Genus Martes.  Unfortunately the museum did not have any skins of sables.  The skin I am showing you is from a Marten collected in the United States which closely resembles it.

I am still unable to track down where the word “Kolinsky” comes in. Actually I did after I posted this. See here.

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The best and most expensive watercolor brushes are claimed by their manufacturers and sellers to be made from the tail hairs of a male kolinsky, mustela sibirica,  collected during the Siberian winter.  Kolinsky is not only the most expensive hair for brushes it is also the most expensive fur for coats.   They don’t seem to be raised in captivity but do not appears to be an endangered species as is often reported.   Based on its scientific name it is referred to officially as Siberian Weasel .    “Kolinsky” means from the Kola peninsula which is the piece of land east of Finland but still in European Russia where they are no longer to be found.     There is a nice review here.

A Kolinsky is a rust colored member of the weasel family .   I have a picture of one in the basic post, so I thought to show you a $663 Prada handbag made of tan Kolinksy fur.  The point being that the hair is not dark brown as so many brushes are.  Sometimes brushes are made from another animal, a sable, martes zibellina.   Notice a martes is not a mustela.   They are in two different groups (genus) of animals.  The sable in question is a dark brown species of marten.  There is no such animal as a “kolinsky sable” (as brush manufacturers sometimes call their product – a violation of the fur products law –see below).   That’s combining two different species of animals and gives the maker license to put any kind of hair in the brush since, as I’ve said, there is no such animal.  There is also no such animal as a “red sable” by which brush manufacturers seem to be implying “kolinsky” whose hairs are rust colored with a dark tip (sable hair are dark brown).   If you want to believe the manufacturers and the sellers are just ignorant of mammalian taxonomy, I’ve got a bridge for you to buy as the saying goes.  Below is a picture of a Sable:

Mop brushes are made from yet the tail of another animal often called a Kazan “Blue” or, more properly, Brown Squirrel which I can not find described anywhere.  I’m beginning to wonder about it.   My guess at the moment is that it is just a plain squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, that happens to come from Kazan.  The cold weather areas do produce squirrels with more bushy tails.   Very special sign making brushes are made from  another specieis of squirrel, the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus Talahutsky), which is also a native of Russia.   It is rare.   Some sign making brushes are made from the tail hair of the Blue squirrel (Sciurus Sacamena) also Russian, not to be confused with the Kazan Blue Squirrel which is more properly called Kazan Brown Squirrel.

Squirrel brushes are very important in sign painting.  Here is a picture of a  Talahutky or “Talahoutky” squirrel brush.

There happens to be a Fur Products Labeling Act of 1952-1980 which appears to have really been written for the fur coat trade. Here’s a link to it. However, it has as its scope all products made from fur sold in the United States.  It requires all fur products to be labelled with the name of the animal and the country of origin.  Furthermore it lists the English names by which it wants the animal to  be described.  You cannot use just any name.  You have to use their name.  “Kolinsky” and “Sable” are each on the list.  Obviously responding to a common marketing ploy the law specifically does not allow names that combine animals or add qualifiers.  One name cannot be used as an adjective preceding another:  like “Kolinsky Sable”.   The best and simplest example of what is specifically not allowed is labeling a brush as being made of  “Camel Hair”.  Brushes are never made from camel hair.  It just sound better than horse hair.  Of course, a product not made from an animal but called “camel hair” like the coat is not covered by this law.

So here’s my plan.  I have e-mailed the collections manager of the mammal department of the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City with the hopes that I can do some real research and that they have some skins in their collection.  Here’s part of the e-mail.

  • As you may or may not know, the very best and most expensive watercolor brushes are made from the winter tail hairs of Mustela sibirica, called in the art world a Kolinsky, but sometimes referred to as Siberian Mountain Weasel — although there seem to be a lot in China, seen often in Beijing, where it is called a “Yellow Rat Weasel”.  I believe “rat” is in the name because it kills rats, and traffic will sometimes stop in Beijing to let one across the street because of this propensity.

  • Brushes are also made from Martes zibellina, called a Marten, and from “Kazan blue squirrel” (and a few other Russian squirrels) which I have not been able to identify.

  • The problem I want to address, to put it bluntly,is that there is a lot of cheating and obfuscation going on in the brush market mostly around kolinsky brushes which, as I have said, are very expensive –running in the hundreds of dollars.  I have a watercolor blog with a fair amount of traffic on it from artists, so I thought I would do a piece, either for that or an art magazine, on the subject.

  • Do you have specimens? Can I come and look at them? What is a “Kazan blue squirrel” (from Russia)? Is there a library in your department like there is in the ornithology department?

  • I am mostly interested in Kolinsky and would love to be able to find ways of identifying first of all Kolinsky hair versus other weasel hair, tail hair versus body hair, male versus female, winter versus summer,etc.  I have a lot of kolinsky brushes to compare with specimens. It also would be nice to pin down what a Kazan Blue Squirrel is, but in general I am less interested in them because there is less shenanigans in that market.

  • There is general agreement that something is going on and that new kolinsky brushes are not as good as the old ones, and I believe some semi-hard science might actually have some effect on the market.

I also went to the museum to look at their exhibits of Asian mammals but all I could find were big game animals donated by some English gentlemen hunters which left an unpleasant aura about the whole collection, one of blood sports not the appreciation of nature.   The animals were in the old style glass box cases which added to the dilapidated, out of date feeling about the whole place, not like the African and North American exhibits which are wonderful.   My wife who was with me chided me for thinking that they would ever display a weasel!

More to come.  I have a date to go to the mammal department of the Museum of Natural History Wednesday, Dec 16th.  Hope they have the specimens skins I’m interested in.   Check out the other “brush” posts where I report on my visit to the museum. Look for topic on the right.  Or click here.

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