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.

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Dian Cui, Traditional Chinese Jewelry Making Crafts

Dian Cui (literally translated from Chinese mandarin) is a traditional Chinese crafts for making gold and silver jewelry. It plays the role of embellishment and beatification for jewelry. Cui, is the feather of Kingfisher namely. The technique is the perfect combination of traditional metal workmanship and feather crafts, which is produced as the following procedures: firstly make base of different patterns with gold or gilded metal, then inlay the bright blue feather-like materials carefully in the base to be made into all kinds of jewelry items.

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Colors of the feather-like material would vary with the location and crafts, due to the natural texture and dreamy color of the material, the finished works will be vivid and lively. Though without the gorgeous beauty of gem products, accessories made with Dian Cui have its own plain beauty, which would embody the spirits of paying attention to details and emphasizing on fine and implicit beauty of oriental area.

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Materials of the crafts

Kingfisher is also called “emerald” as well. The bird which is of blue body and ventral brown would perch and wait next to the water for long time with straight posture. Whenever seeing a fish or shrimp pass by, it would dash into water to capture the creature with mouth rapidly and fiercely. Sometime it would fly above the water about five to seven meters high with bowing head to look at the water, which looks like it is hanging on the half-air. The bird would have it nest built in the sand of field and embankment, which is created like a tunnel and about 60 centimeters deep. The kingfisher gained its name “Cui Niao” in China due to its dazzling and glittering characteristics of the feather. Due to the protection of the bird recent years, the feather of the bird is avoided, and some other alternation which is like this kind of feathers is applied.

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Producing crafts

Jewelry made with Dian Cui is of excellent gloss and bright color; what’s more, the color will never fade. However, the crafts are not that easy to be accomplished. Firstly, a base made with gold and silver metals which are arranged in the shape of flower would be needed, with a groove welded with gold wire along the edge of flower shape follows, then paint right amount of glue in the middle section and skillfully paste the feather-like objects onto the base to form auspicious and exquisite patterns. More elements such as gate, red coral, jade and pearls would be added, which would add more charm of elegance and nobility to the wearer. The crafts was alternated with special ribbon or papers in Qing dynasty, while substitutes would be used in contemporary society.

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Historical development

The Chinese ancient costume of the emperor took the feather of kingfisher as decoration. After long time of development, the skill can still bring us much shock. Therefore, the crafts “Dian Cui” prevails a long time in the gold and silver jewelry manufacturing industry and its techniques has been improved continuously, which reached the highest point in the era of Qian Long, one greatest emperor of Qing dynasty. Due to the national animal protection reasons, feathers of the kingfisher are banned to be used, substitutes of the feathers of current Dian Cui jewelry are applied. However, like many age-old techniques, people who can manipulate the crafts becomes less, it risks being lost forever.

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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




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.




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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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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Tradition Surpass Generations

The unrivalled craftsmanship of Miao Hmong silver jewelry has progressed constantly in history. Although the individual step in making silver jewelry may seem easy to manage, like burning, blending, hammering, engraving, cutting, and twining, but in fact each masterpiece shows silversmith’s great persistence, patience and painstaking efforts. However, for these silversmiths, nothing can make them happier than creating a set of delicate silver jewelries.


A Father’s Love


Miao silver jewelry Tongju Wu, one of the best silversmiths in Taijiang county of Guizhou province, who is known throughout the county for his delicate craftwork, began to follow his father in making silver jewelry when he was 15 years old. Living a simple life and doing farming, Tongju Wu devotes all his life to making silver jewelry. He has created many new patterns into the traditional designs.

Currently, the major task for Tongju Wu is to make four sets of splendid garments for his four daughters. He recently completed the first for his oldest daughter, Guomei Wu, whose splendid silver decorated dress cost more than 30 thousand Chinese Yuan, which is the whole family’s savings for over two years. It took Dongju Wu three months to make the jewelries and ornaments for the dress which weighs more than 20 kg.

Guomei Wu believes she is an ideal model for her father’s work and hopes that this beautiful and gorgeous clothing can help her catch attention and praise. As for Tongju Wu, the happiest moment in his life was to see his daughter wear the clothing in which he wove his love and hope. He strongly believes that with time and the accumulation of his family’s savings, his other daughters’ outfits will be even more delicate and charming.


Family Tradition


Miao silver jewelry Another outstanding silversmith, Tonglun Wu, shares something in common with Tongju Wu. Tonglun was an orphan when he was five. However, he never gave up his hope of promoting his family’s 200-year tradition of making silver jewelry. Despite many obstacles and difficulties, Tonglun has been keeping and furthering his family tradition. With several decades’ experience in making silver jewelry, Tonglun has made over fifty types of silver jewelries in the forms of dragons, phoenix, fish, birds and other figures. Many of his works have won awards in Guizhou for their unique and exquisite design and excellent technique. As a seasoned silversmith, Tonglun Wu took many of his work to an exhibition in Beijing, on which he showed the traditional but charming skills of making silver jewelry.

Another thing that satisfies Tonglun Wu is his 16-year-old son, Guoyin Wu also inherited his skills. Young as Guolun Wu is, he is very eager to learn. Still only a high school student, he is confident one day he will surpass his father in technique. And as a father, Tonglun Wu is more than happy to see his son fall in love with this long-cherished family tradition.

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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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