Bead Around the World – Tibet

For centuries and millennia beads have been the central component and currency of Asian trade along the Silk Road. A dazzling array of beads and bead raw materials – silver, coral, amber, glass and lapis lazuli – was transported eastward along the silk routes, while caravans from China arrived at the emporiums of Samarkand, Kabul and Antioch laden with silk, porcelain, lacquer and vermilion. Until it was absorbed into China in 1959, Tibet was the most influential country in the region and its trade involved importing luxury goods including beads and bead materials such as turquoise, coral and amber.

Since Tibetans were not familiar with cut gems, they did not know or care about their value. Their main concern was that necklaces look good; whether glass or real stones were used was almost secondary.  The exuberance of colour in the jewellery acts as an antidote to the stark landscape. The photo above shows Khampa women in eastern Tibet wearing typical coral and turquoise necklaces. The showy robustness of these designs perfectly compliments their broad smiles.

Beads are also worn by Tibetan women in their hair and on headdresses, serving as examples of wealth and emblems of tribal or communal identity.  Coral was imported from Italy. Marco Polo wrote in the 13th century; ‘Coral is very dear, because they place it round the neck of their women and their idols, and hold it as precious stone’. Turquoise was worn extensively and even the poorest Tibetan owned a few turquoise beads.  They also functioned as barter currency. With turquoise beads a European visitor could buy better than with money. More valued beads are called dZi, black and white or brown bead of etched or treated agate.  They are revered in Tibet as a precious jewel of supernatural power.  However, their origin and method of manufacture are mysterious and still hotly debated. The prime reason for the controversy is that Tibetan religious laws forbid archaeological excavations, for Tibetans believe earth spirits would resent the intrusion and wreak havoc, limiting available information to often vague orally transmitted folktales.

Since the Chinese annexation most jewellery has disappeared as the use of adornment including beads was outlawed in the Cultural Revolution. The repression of Buddhism forbids even the carrying of prayer beads, malas. Tibetan beads continue to be worn by those living in exile and by various nomadic groups, who escape Communist control and monitor. Tibetan jewellery now are seen in markets of southern Himalayan countries.


I’ve found some fascinating pieces in London markets and remodelled a few (see above).  What we sometimes call ‘Tibetan amber’ is not fossilised amber but made from newer plant resin.  It’s opaque rather than transparent, has a distinctive orange-brown colour, and as robust as other Tibetan bead materials. Also found are Tibetan shells. The collector I got them from could not tell me where they originated from. Judging from their large size, they must have come from substantial shells e.g. conch.

Source; ‘The Worldwide History of Beads’ by Lois Sherr Dubin

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