Traditional Tibetan Jewelry under Threat

Ornamentation has always been extremely important for the Tibetan people. And when it comes to self-adornment, silver is king. Tibetan people believe that wearing silver protects them from bad spirits and can even help in cure disease.

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However, silversmiths in Tibet are under threat from jewellers making items using machines – but the local people are still proud to wear a symbol of their heritage.

Man Ta and her daughter, Zhuo Ma, are proud to wear their silver and do so even while performing simple daily routines such as preparing food.

Man Ta was 17 years old when her mother gave her these adornments. They consisted of necklaces, earrings, belts, and different head ornaments. She feels proud wearing them.

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Man Ta said, “We are very proud of our culture. We think that our clothing and jewelry are the best, the most beautiful. So we wear this in order to tell people, ‘I am a Tibetan’, that we are proud of our culture. ”

But those who make the silver pieces the traditional way are becoming increasingly scarce. Dorje Zhu is among the few of them working in the northern region of Sichuan Province, in southwestern China. The 37 year-old studied the art of working silver from one of the few elders who still practiced it. Now, he claims to be the only silversmith left in Shang Si Zhai valley and the nearby Jiuzhaigou area.

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Dorje Zhu, silversmith, said, “There used to be a silversmith master before, but now he passed away. He used to be my teacher. I learned the skills from him. And I went to Qinghai to stay there for a while and learn from the people who make the silver. So in Jiuzhaigou, right now, I am the only one that is able to craft the silver in the traditional way.”

It takes Dorje about three hours to make a ring, but more elaborate designs for belts, for example, can take weeks. He uses metal that he buys in the city, an alloy of copper with a very low component of silver that is stronger than pure silver.

Dorje explains that the content of silver used to be higher decades ago, but the advent of industrialization and the mass production of jewelry has devalued it.

Dorje Zhu said, “There were some outsiders that came bringing the machines to make the same work that we do manually. They can make nicer products than the ones made by hand. Also, handwork is slow, while the machines can work much faster.”

Jiuzhaigou National park has become one of China’s most popular travel destinations. Around two million visitors come here every year to have a glimpse of the impressive landscapes. But when the park closes, it’s time for souvenir shopping.

Dorje warns that many of the pieces sold as souvenirs come from big factories. And some of the jewellery is so cheap its silver content is questionable. There are also places to find the real, hand-carved silver ornaments.

In iuzhaigou village, necklaces with strings of precious beads, and pieces of engraved silver are for sale at prices starting at RMB800 yuan. The price tag might be higher but trader say it reflects the long hours spent working the silver by craftsmen like Dorje. It may well be the price of keeping tradition alive.

by Xiao Xiao @ InteractChina.com

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Tibetan Jewelry

For Tibetans, jewelry plays an important, traditional role in dress, spirituality, and life. Under the stylish design, Tibetan jewelry implies the archaized style and a unique charm and appeal of art, and they can not be replaced by any other ethnic style jewelry.

Tibetan Jewelry

Style

Handmade Tibetan Jewelry reflects rich Tibetan ethnic cultural connotation and bold styling. In contrast with India, where a piece of jewelry is valued for the preciousness of the metals and gems that go into making it, Tibetans value their jewelry based on its color, size and symbolism.

Tibetan Jewelry Tibetan Jewelry

Tibetan jewelry has a rustic, almost unfinished look to it. In contrast with the perfectly symmetrical and flawless appearance of, say Italian silver jewelry, Tibetan silver pieces are individually made in a process that usually involves hammering and chiseling. No one will ever confuse Tibetan jewelry as machine mass produced because of its simple beauty! Tibetan jewelry, including silver and gold jewelry, also tends to be much larger in size than the jewelry made in most other countries and regions.

Material

Tibetan Jewelry

As for materials, Tibetan jewelry is usually made of copper or silver, although gold jewelry is also produced. Tibetan jewelry also makes extensive use of gemstones. Turquoise and coral are their favorites, but rubies, sapphires, agates, coral, amber, copal, carnelian, garnet, lapis lazuli, amethyst, and jade are also used. Yak bone is also a popular material for jewelry-making.

Silver and Gold Work Traditions in Tibet

Documents in China from the 7th Century were written in praise of Tibetan silversmiths and goldsmiths, which were believed to be one of the wonders of the medieval world. It is not clear where these skills came from or whether they originated from within the Tibetan region. It is known that Tibet has long been subjected to influences from foreigners. It was a stop on the famed Silk Routes that ran from the Mediterranean to China. Trading is known to have taken place between Tibet and such nations as Turkey, Iran, India, China, and all regions of Central Asia. It is possible that silver and gold workers in Tibet had associations with metal workers from other regions.

Silver Jewelry

Tibetan Jewelry

The Tibetans have been skilled silversmiths for many hundreds of years. Silver containers have been found in temples that date back to 600 AD. Ancient metal work exhibiting advanced skills have been also uncovered, usually in the form of Buddhist sculptures.

Gold Jewelry

Tibetan Jewelry

Gold was thought to have restorative qualities in addition to increasing longevity and dispelling demons. In Tibet, gold jewelry has always been rare, a luxury limited to the rich and the powerful.

Gold jewelry reflects not only the personal wealth of the owners, but also social and political status. It also reflects the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Gems and jewelry often serve as a metaphor for the ideals of faith, and Himalayan deities were richly adorned with abundant gold jewelry- crowns, earrings, necklaces, armlets, anklets, finger and toe rings.

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Mysterious Tibetan Jewelry

To some extent, Tibetan jewelries convey a traditional cultural tint of Tibet. That is why the Tibetan jewelries look more mysterious and exotic, and why there are so many people like Tibetan jewelry very much.

Religious Symbol

Tibet is a Buddhist nation, which is reflected strongly in its jewelry. Some Tibetan style pendants, which in Buddhism are ritual instruments for subduing demons, believed to dispel all sins and bring people power, courage, and intelligence. Many pieces have Sanskrit inscriptions of a religious symbolic nature.

These are the most common symbolic forms that you will definitely see in Tibetan jewelry:

Tibetan Jewelry

Om . The om symbol is the sound of the universe. It has great significance to Buddhists and Hindus.

Tibetan Jewelry

Tibetan Jewelry

Mantras . The most common mantra is “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which means “The Jewel Lotus Flower within the Heart.” When chanted, this ancient harmony connects us to the tune of the universe.

Tibetan Jewelry

Auspicious Symbols . There are eight auspicious symbols in Tibetan thought. These symbols serve a pedagogical function, teaching Buddhist principles to the people in a form that is easily remembered.

Tibetan Jewelry

The auspicious symbols are as follows:

Conch shell: the sound of the sacred path (Dharma)

Dual fish: spiritual abundance

Interwoven knot: representing the eternity of Lord Buddha’s teachings

Lotus flower: transformation of life into pure spirit

Treasure bowl: symbolizes spiritual jewels

Umbrella: protection from the corruption of personal desire

Victory Emblem: a banner representing spiritual attainment

Wheel of Dharma: the stillness of the soul capable of watching the world while remaining unaffected by it

Amulet

Tibetan jewelry is seen as a means to keep the wearers close to deities and also believed to have the ability to eliminate disease, fear of death, prolong life and increase wealth.

Tibetan Jewelry

Tibet is famous for its ancient beads, called Dzi beads. Dzi beads have amulet properties, as they are believed to be capable of driving away evil spirits, protecting against natural catastrophes, increase one’s energy, bring good reputation to oneself, and promote decency. Dzi beads have been dated back to 1000 B.C. and were once referred to as God Beads. The beads exist in different shapes and motifs, each serving a different spiritual function.

Tibetan Jewelry

Tibetans often wear a prayer box, known as Ghau (or Gau or Gao). These prayer boxes are amulets (protectors), and are usually made of silver. They are highly ornate in pattern and design, and usually are embedded with gemstones. The Ghau is worn as a necklace, with the box hanging at heart-length. Inside the box is placed a scroll prepared by a Buddhist priest. The scroll contains a mantra, prayer, image of Buddha, or sacred symbol. In place of a scroll, a Tibetan might place a gemstone with protective powers or medicinal herbs in the box.

Tibetan Jewelry

In Tibetans’ views, yak is a kind of beautiful and sacred animal. Among Tibetan people there has been a Legend of yak circulating: “after the death of each yak, it will turn into a guardian to protect those who still respect them. And the way to respect dead yak is putting its fur or bone at home or carrying them along.” Therefore, Tibetan people carve scripture on yak skulls as a sacrifice for religion. At the same time, Yak Bone ornament could be seen worn by a lot of people in Tibet, in such way they commemorate and respect yaks which contribute their whole lives to Tibetans. Yak bone ornament is a unique decoration, original and natural, tough and unconstrained, which adds a wild charm to the wearer. And yak bone jewelry can also used as amulet to avoid evils.

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Miao Hmong Silver Jewelry Showcase

A saying of the Miao goes like this “The beauty of golden pheasant lies in its feather, and the beauty of Miao Hmong girl lies in her silver jewelries.” The sparkling and clanking silver jewelries are stunning and are highlights to the landscape of the Miao Hmong village.

Miao women love to dress in unique silver jewelries from head to toe. Here are just a few kinds.

Silver Headdress

Miao Hmong silver headdresses are quite a sight and are worn only on very special occasions, like weddings or significant festivals. They include five different parts: the horn, the crown, the comb, the flowers and the hairpin.

Silver Horn

Miao Hmong silver horns are crafted to mimic the horns of an ox. The two horns can be as much as three feet apart! And they’re quite tall, almost doubling the height of the wearer.

An image of two dragons playing with a pearl is often engraved, symbolizing wishes for an auspicious future. But each silver horn is unique. Some women adorn the horns with different kinds of silver pendants like phoenixes, birds, and butterflies. A pair of white feathers is usually put on the horns to make them even taller and more attractive. Miao silver jewelry

Silver Crown

A silver crown is the base of the headdress and can be a foot tall and quite heavy. There are three kinds of silver crown.

The first kind is a hat completely covered with silver flowers, birds, animals, bells, and tassels. There are twelve pieces of silver feathers hanging behind the hat and reaching to their waist. This type is popular in the Huangping area of Guizhou province. Miao silver jewelry

The second kind is usually seen in Leishan, Guizhou province, which has no top and a piece of 10-centimeter wide silver with three parts. The first part on the top features 29 silver flowers. The second part in the body has warriors riding horses. The silver fringes make up the last part. Miao silver jewelry

Another type is worn by Miao Hmong women in Shidong area of Guizhou. Miao silver jewelry

Silver Comb

Miao Hmong women wear silver combs on their heads as ornaments. Patterns of flowers, birds, dragons, or deer are carved on the silver ornaments. Some combs feature the image of a Bodhisattva, with several layers of silver chains dropping down. Miao silver jewelry

Silver Hairpin

The design of Miao Hmong silver hairpins varies, but they usually feature birds, butterflies, and flowers. The most striking designs feature 10 silver flowers which look like a Chinese fan. Some hairpins look like chopsticks decorated with silver bells or long tassels.

Miao silver jewelry

Silver Earring

Tiny Miao Hmong earrings are often shaped like flowers, birds, butterflies, dragons, or plants. Miao Hmong women usually wear 3 or 4 pieces of silver earrings at one time. In some areas a single silver earring can weigh 200 grams, and reach all the way down to their shoulders. But many small earrings have threads which are as thin as a piece of paper.

Miao silver jewelry

Silver Necklace

A Miao Hmong silver necklace is wide and heavy, and has many pendants hanging from it. Smaller silver necklaces are rarely worn.

There are many kinds of necklace popular in the Miao Hmong areas. One kind of dragon silver necklace is quite impressive. It features two dragons playing with a pearl and has 11 silver tassels dangling from the bottom. Another kind of necklace has 14 silver rings linked tightly together, while silver birds or butterflies hang down from each ring. Miao silver jewelry Miao silver jewelry

Silver Bracelet

The Miao Hmong silver bracelets are engraved with the images of flowers, fish, or dragons. Some bracelets feature wide band which is like the cuffs worn by warriors in ancient times. Miao Hmong women usually show off 4 or 5 silver bracelets at one time, sometimes more during festivals or holidays. Miao silver jewelry

Silver Ring

A Miao Hmong silver ring is usually quite small and has fine pieces of silver bent and shaped into flowers, birds, or plants. In some Miao Hmong areas, women have rings on all eight fingers except their thumbs. Some rings are big enough to cover half the length of their fingers!

Miao silver jewelry Miao silver jewelry

Silver Costume

A silver costume in Leishan area normally has 44 silver pieces sewn onto the fabric. Each silver piece has vivid patterns like flowers, butterflies, tigers, lions, and dragons engraved on them. Whereas in Shidong area, silver costume have as many as 380 silver pieces sewn onto the costume. When they walk and dance, the silver ornaments make beautiful sounds.

Miao silver jewelry Miao silver jewelry

Silver Waistband

A silver waistband displays tens or even hundreds of silver images of Bodhisattvas sewn on a piece of cloth. The Miao Hmong wrap it tightly around their waist, and they sparkle when the Miao Hmong dance.

One famous waistband displayed in a Miao Hmong museum features 105 unique silver Bodhisattvas images, each of which has different facial expression and gesture, reflecting the incredible imagination and creativity of the Miao Hmong artisan. Miao silver jewelry

Silver Anklet

Last but not least are small but sturdy silver anklets that clasp above the foot. Silver anklets are usually worn by children to drive away evil spirits and bring them a bright future.

Miao silver jewelry

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Miao Hmong Silver and Tibet Silver vs. Sterling Silver and Pure Silver

Miao Hmong silver

Miao silver jewelry

Miao silver is not pure silver, but an alloy of silver, copper and nickel. It’s a traditional material for making jewelry by craftsmen of Miao Hmong ethnic tribe. The percentage of silver is about 60%. Miao Hmong silver jewelry is distinctive for its design, style and craftsmanship. Miao Hmong silver jewelry is completely handmade, carved with decorative patterns. It’s not easy to make and there is no pair exactly the same. Miao Hmong people think silver accessories have spirits. Wear it more, clean it more, it will reward you with more beautiful luster.

Miao silver gets oxidized,especially during summer when people sweat a lot. Less moisture and no chemicals will keep it shine longer. Polish it the same way as you do with your 925 silver accessories. Or just use cotton to polish it. Keep it in a sealed package when you don’t wear it.

Tibetan silver

Miao silver jewelry

The term “Tibetan silver” is applied to a variety of metal alloys used in jewelry, some of which have no silver content at all. Historically, Tibetan silver contained 30 percent of silver, but today this is rarely the case. Modern Tibetan silver is usually cast from a mixture of copper, nickel and a small amount of silver. Some Tibetan silver also contains zinc. Its overall appearance looks like aged silver, but it can be polished to give highlights on complex castings.

Sterling silver

Miao silver jewelry

Sterling silver is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% by weight of other metals, usually copper. The sterling silver standard has a minimum millesimal fineness of 925. Fine silver (99.9% pure) is generally too soft to produce functional objects. Therefore, the silver is usually alloyed with copper to give it strength, while at the same time preserving the ductility and beauty of the precious metal. Other metals can replace the copper, usually with the intent to improve various properties of the basic sterling alloy such as reducing casting porosity, eliminating firescale, and increasing resistance to tarnish. These replacement metals include germanium, zinc and platinum, as well as a variety of other additives, including silicon and boron.

Fine silver

Miao silver jewelry

Fine silver has a millesimal fineness of 999. Also called pure silver, or three nines fine, fine silver contains 99.9% silver, with the balance being trace amount of impurities. This grade of silver is used to make bullion bars for international commodities trading and investment in silver. In the modern world, fine silver is understood to be too soft for general use. Comparing with 92.5% sterling silver, 99.9% pure silver is much softer, whiter, brighter, and no signs of impure metals can be seen, but more difficult to craft into silver jewelry.

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A Poem Written On Silver

Miao silver jewelry Silver has unique significance in Miao Hmong culture. The Miao people have been deeply fascinated with silver since ancient times. The culture of silver was handed down since the Qin and Han Dynasties (221BC to 220 AD). The Miao’s silver jewelry are second to none in terms of quantity and varieties. The craft has developed into a unique art form.

The silver jewelry of Miao are in large varieties, which are particularly represented by that of Leishan County of Guizhou province and Fenghuang County of Hunan Province. Silver jewelries mainly include silver crown, horn, comb, earrings, necklace, bracelet and ring. These jewelry are mainly worn by women. The reason of wearing silver is primarily aesthetic, but also as amulets to ward off evil and as symbols of wealth.

Significance of Silver in Miao Culture

It is a tradition that when a girl is born, her parents will start saving money to make fancy silver jewelry that can weigh several kilograms. On the wedding day, the girl will be wearing these beautiful silver accessories all over her body, the more and heavier the better, showing her beauty and wealth of family and adding joyful atmosphere to the event. Miao silver jewelry

The Origin of Miao Silver

In history, the Miao people live in regions of no silver resources, they had to work hard and melt almost all the silver coins and ingots they earned. This led to different levels of silver purity as currencies differed from region to region. For instance, the southeastern area of Guizhou province is divided into two parts by Leishan Mountain. In the north area, people used Dayang (a kind of silver currency) to make jewelry, so the silver purity was high, while in the south area, Erhao (a kind of silver currency) was used, so the jewelry contained less silver. Since 1950s, the Chinese government has showed great respect to Miao people’s custom and allocated certain amount of silver to them at a low price every year. Miao silver jewelry

Traditional Craft

Today’s silver jewelry with basic fixed patterns and designs are the result of years of passing down and inheritance. Casting, beating, knitting, chiseling and carving are the common techniques for making silver ornaments. The patterns adopted are mostly dragon, phoenix, flower and bird, which are lifelike and exquisite. They are largely inspired by other art forms such as embroidery and wax printing. The silversmiths continuously improve and renovate the designs and patterns while keeping the traditional designs.

Miao Hmong silver jewelries are diversified, colorful, eternal and meaningful, just like beautiful poems written on the silver worth reading perpetually.

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Intricately Handmade Miao Hmong Silver Jewelry Impossible to Duplicate

While worn by women, the Miao’s silver jewelries are made by men. The unique techniques to craft silver jewelry have been handed down from generations. Don’t look down upon a small piece of silver jewelry, because it involves dozens of procedures which requires extremely patience, persistence and carefulness.

Melting

Miao silver Melting silver is the first step. Traditionally a big stove made of charcoal is used to melt silver. Today, silversmiths have invented a small, light electric tool that can heat silver to temperatures over 1,000 degrees Celsius. They melt silver in a bowl called the “silver nest”.

Hammering

Miao silver Then the seething hot silver liquid is poured into an iron slot to harden into a solid silver bar. They take the bar out of the slot with forceps and hammer it into the needed shape. Some silver jewelries are carefully crafted with paper-thin slices, while others need solid, heavy pieces of silver.

Pulling

Miao silver How do they work with such thin slices and hair-like silver threads to craft silver jewerly? Only using a pair of scissors and forceps, the Miao Hmong artisans can twist these delicate, fine silver slices and threads into elaborate patterns featuring lifelike birds, flowers, and other symbols. Some craftsmen always wear a magnifying glass just to see the fine pieces on their silver jewelries.

To make silver threads, Miao Hmong artisans use a steel sheet with 60 different round holes. The size of each hole is different. The steel board is put onto a short, round wooden post. The silversmith steps onto the board and uses a pair of pliers to pull silver through the holes. Just like that, an ideal silver thread is created.

To work with such fine silver slices or threads is very hurtful to one’s eyes. That’s why lots of Miao silversmiths have to retire before they are 50.

Silver jewelries crafted with such silver slices or threads look more charming and unique.

Engraving

Miao silver Some Miao silver jewelries have beautiful patterns engraved on their surface. Before engraving, the jewelry needs to be fixed onto a rosin board. They’ll heat the black rosin board to make the surface softer, and the silver can be easily fixed on it. The rosin then cools down, and the silver stick to the surface.

The silversmith will use a pencil to draw designs on the silver, and then he will engrave the designs using sharp steel sticks, which are about 10 centimeters long with round, flat, or pointed tops. A light hammer, made of the horn of a water buffalo, is used to strike the sticks and make the design. Engraving is quite time consuming.

Each intricate design should be engraved carefully. A slight error may ruin the whole piece of work. A skillful Miao Hmong silversmith needs many years of training and practice. Their elaborate silver jewelries are impossible to be copied by any machine.

Miao Hmong silver jewelries often combine different pieces, so the almost perfect soldering of tiny pieces is strictly demanded. Inspecting a Miao Hmong silver jewelry, you’ll never find any small, ugly bubbles of solder. The finished work looks so neat and clean.

Washing

Washing is the last step. Immersing the handmade jewelry into phosphoric acid for a few minutes removes stains from surface and makes the silver brighter and whiter.

Intricately designed Miao Hmong silver jewelries not only show Miao Hmong craftsmanship, but also reflect Miao Hmong culture. They are so unique that it’s impossible for anyone to duplicate.

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