Jewellery and traditional beliefs

Today, China is known for being one of the largest producers of pearls. It is a very ancient artistic tradition, but China began to use precious metals relatively late. Rare references for ornaments date from the Tang period (618-906). At the beginning of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese showed great interest in jewellery influenced by Persia and India. Only toward of the end of the 11th century, we can see local characteristics. The most important type of jewel was worn on the head like tiaras and diadems. We can see many influences in Chinese jewels from the Himalaya region (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan), where the traditional skills were trekked from village to village, tribe to tribe. The jewellery traditions of the Far East reflect this immense environmental, cultural and economic diversity. However, many jewellery traditions were stopped during the time of communism, where personal adornment was severely criticised by the government. Only official badges and medals were authorized, in order to show one’s pride and loyalty to the party. Since the end of Mao Tse Tung reign, the Chinese have recovered the skills and knowledge to make ancient and traditional jewellery work.

Punched work, pierced work, and filigree are characteristics of Chinese jewellery. Their jewellery is seen to provide power and strength to the wearer. Animals were representative and symbolic. For example,  the dragon symbolized power and good luck, the goldfish for abundance of gold, the phoenix for good fortune, opportunity and luck, and many others like bird, tiger, monkey, bat, peacock. Clouds, flowers and twigs were also symbols of good luck. Colours and semi precious stones were worn in order to give power, but also to cure some diseases, give longevity, and to be healthy.  The most famous stones used for many centuries are coral, turquoise and jade.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Turquoise is seen as a “living stone” that shares the ultimate fate of the mortal that wear it. Its colour symbolizes water, air and sky. This stone can counteract devil forces and make the wearer brave and invulnerable. In addition, seeing it in a dream may bring you good luck.

Coral is supposed to bring good luck, strength to women, and favourable effects on menstruation. The most desired variety is the Italian coral. It was brought by the Silk Road and was only worn by the wealthiest class. Marco Polo noted that Tibetans ranked coral among the precious stones and used it to adorn the necks of their women and idols.

Turquoise and coral were used to make amulet boxes in silver, gold or copper. Hidden spells or prayers in the boxes were used to appease evil spirits, while the decoration was symbolic to strengthen power content.

amulet box made with turquoise and coral stones

The blue turquoise colour was also given by enamel or by the very traditional Chinese process: using Kingfisher feathers. The technique, called tian-tsui, means “dotting with kingfishers” that involves using glue to adhere the feathers onto vermeil, or silver. The Kingfisher bird is highly esteemed by the Chinese for its colour and celebrated in poetry and song by Chinese from ancient times. Over the centuries, the Kingfisher’s blue colour feather became highly prized and extremely sought after as an inlay in decorative arts. Kingfisher feather were used by the Chinese to denote status, wealth and royalty. Today that tradition has disappeared; many birds were killed during the Qing dynasty just in order to collect their feathers and the skill of tian tsui has disappeared as well. But we can still see very wonderful pieces in museums.

hair ornament made with kingfisher feathers

chinese necklace and earings made with coral beads and kingfisher feathers

This portrait of the wife of a high dignitary is painted on silk. It was made during the 1st Ming dynasty (early 15th century). She’s wearing a traditional headdress, which constituted with phoenix, clouds and flowers. The red beads were probably coral and the clouds in blue are made with kingfisher feathers to symbolize air and sky. We can also see turquoise beads on the pendants and pearls.

Turquoise, coral and pearls are very famous in Chinese jewellery. But the most famous stone is obviously the Jade. Not only for jewellery making, also for decorative objects, dishes, vases, hair comb… We found utilization of jade as jewel since Palaeolithic (hunter-gatherers) period with perforated beads at Zhoukoudian. But it’s during the Neolithic period the “art of jade” have started, caring in the Zhejiang province (5000 BC). The massive production of finely polished pendants and beads were being produced in South-East China during the 3rd millennium before Christ.  In ancient time, Jade was most expensive than gold. For example during the Imperial China, the first prize for an athlete was jade, after gold for the second place and at the third place ivory.

Jade often has a green colour, but the most rare and luxurious one is the white jade.  Many colours can be found: pink, orange or light brown, blue, black. The different colours are created by different types of chemical components: the green jade contains chromium salts, the blue-green jade contains cobalt salts, the black jade contains titanium salts, and the pink jade contains salts of iron and manganese.

traditional jade bangle made in various colours

In ancient China, jade was used in rituals and sacrifices. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, the sky was round and the earth was square. A jade ornament with a round hole in the middle, called “bi”, symbolized the sky. A jewel of long hollow jade with rectangular sides, called “cong”, symbolized the earth. The bi was often placed with the corpse before burial as jade cicada was used to symbolize rebirth.

China, late Eastern Zhou dynasty or early Western Han dynasty 3rd – 2nd century BC Diameter: 5 1/8 inches, 13 cm Thickness: 1/8 inch, 0.4 cm

In the Han Dynasty, some leaders were buried in suits made entirely of jade. It was made of many pieces with various shapes, usually square, that were held together by thin threads of precious metal or silk, like the shroud of King of Chu. These extremely expensive structures were reserved only for elites. It is estimated that it took several years to achieve this kind of ritual costume that consists of 2000 to 5000 pieces! The Chinese believed that jade had magical properties and protected the corpse from decomposition.

jade shroud made with white jade and gold thread, Han dynasty.

Jade is still being used today, although the techniques have changed with technology the jade objects as talismans, “bi” or decorative objects are still used in Chinese culture, and popular with tourists as souvenirs.

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Porcelain Jewellery from Huang Yichuan

The Design China blog should be on your subscription list – it highlights the best in contemporary Chinese design such as the work of Beijing-based jewellery designer, Huang Yichuan whose use of porcelain stems from her allergy to many of the materials used in metal jewellery. The piece above evokes the traditional blue and white Chinese style.

via Design China – Huang Yichuan.

Where your beads come from

I’m hoping to show the documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China as part of the module. It’s an examination of the process of making beads in Chinese factories and what happens to them afterwards. As you can imagine, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

The director has written about the film over on Etsy:

MARDI GRAS: MADE IN CHINA follows the story of four teenage workers who sew plastic beads together with needles and thread and also pull them from a machine. Each story provides insight into their economic realities, self-sacrifice, dreams of a better life, and the severe discipline imposed by living and working in a factory compound. I was eventually kicked out of China under the premise of not having a journalist visa, so I continued following the bead trail to New Orleans in an effort to visually personalize globalization. What I found, and presented in the documentary, is that Mardi Gras beads were hand-crafted and made from cut glass in Czechoslovakia up until the late 1960s. Glass beads were the most popular throws at that time, but a rise in costs, political conditions overseas, and a safety ordinance that cautioned against items that might cause eye injuries all contributed to the decline and ultimate elimination of glass beads and the rise in popularity of plastic ones.

via Mardi Gras: Made in China | The Etsy Blog.

Here’s the trailer