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Among the Tibetan crafting techniques are encasing, inlaying, and making wire drawing. The techniques used decorate jewelry are also used on religious articles and everyday objects such as snuff bottles with hollowed-out designs; prayer wheels; barrels to hold rice for offering before Buddha images; and sea-snail-shaped ritual horns. The designs are mostly derive from religious beliefs and the lifestyle of the Tibetan people, often featuring symbols that convey special meaning. and the deeply-hued Tibetan silver is a mysterious temptation.

Tibetan aristocrats have traditionally owned things like capes made from peacock feather thread and adorned with pearls, sable, turquoise and gold medallions; applique "fair weather" tents; and gilt shrines. Nomads are known for making jewelry, daggers, chopsticks, amulets and other objects using silver and turquoise.

Many art objects, handicrafts and jewelry items feature dzi beads. Dzi beads literally means “heaven pearls” and are regarded as gifts given by gods. Such beads are etched black-and-white or brown-and-white, with symbols comprised of circles, ovals, square, waves stripes, lines and various other symbolic patterns. Sometimes the beads looks like an eye, so some people think that they have magic power. To Tibetans, each symbol on a dzi bead has a specific meaning. They are precious possession to the Tibetan, with so many fascinating stories of its mystical power attributed to it. A true natural dzi bead is very expensive. Most dzi beads found in markets are man or machine-made. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

Gold mdong-mo (butter churn) with gemstone inlay was produced by imperial workshop, Qing dynasty (1644-1912). According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Butter tea is a part of everyday life for Tibetans and Mongolians. To make it, first you boil a brick of tea to make a strong infusion, which you then pour into a special tea churn (mdong-mo in Tibetan) that contains a small amount of butter and salt. The combination is then churned vigorously until it becomes emulsified. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Tibetan Masks

The Tibetan mask-making is a craft that evolved from supplying masks for Tibetan opera and dance and religious masks suspended in temples. Tibetan masks require great skill to make and are valued by collectors. Demon masks from the Sorcerers of Dance are particularly sought after. Tibetan opera masks are divided into the blue masks and the white masks, and depict kings, princes, princesses, demons and goblins. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Tibetan masks fall into three categories: 1) masks intended to be hung; 2) Cham dance masks; and 3) and opera masks. Of the latter ramie-lined masks are elaborately made to portray gods, demons and beasts. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

The “Painted Mask of Yamantaka” is used in Cham dance and can be viewed as a kind of shaman mask used in religious rites. Similar masks hung in the temples but quite different from the Tibetan opera masks, it is coated with paint and varnish. The mask is light and handy. Yamantaka Vajrahasa is a scary god with a skull on the head. Also known as Bull head Vajrahasa, he is a Dharma Protector, from the Esoteric Sect of Dge-lugspa of Tibetan Buddhism. His three-eye image is influenced by Siva of Hinduism. The mask contains two bull horns, decorated with golden cloud design with two small bells on the ears that make sounds during the dancing performances.

Tibetan Ornaments

Tibetans wear ornaments made of gold and silver as well as jewelry made of amber, agate, jadeite, pearl and ivory and fake versions of these materials. The traditional women’s headdress is called “bazhu” and “baguo”. Women decorate their hair with golden, silver or jade ornamnets and their bodies with “gawu”, a kind of Buddhist box. They also wear earrings, necklaces, bracelets and finger rings. At festivals, they dress themselves up and cover themselves with heavy-looking jewelry. Men sometimes carry swords and wear earrings and bracelets.

It is common to see Tibetan women wearing Tibetan head ornaments made from silver, coral, turquoise, semi-precious stones and animal bones. Often two or three decorative strips are put horizontally or vertically on the head decorated with large agate, amber, pearl, colorful jade and other gold and silver decorations. It is often difficult to judge a woman’s marital status by her headdress in pastoral areas.

Bazhu is the most characteristic head adornment for women in Tibet. Bazhu in Lhasa region has three twigs or horns, which are tied on top of the head flatly with two twigs pointing forward, and the two braids are coiled on each twig separately. Bazhu in Rikeze and Jiangzi is arched. When being worn, the arch points upward, and the many thin braids are hung on either end of the arch. The framework of Bazhu is often tied up with red pulu or cloth, and pearl, agate, and coral are sewed on it. Bazhu decorated completely with pearl is called "pearl Bazhu", which is the most precious. Coral Bazhu takes the second place. Tibetan children of BaibaIn the past, there were rank restrictions in wearing Bazhu: only hereditary noble ladies can wear pearl Bazhu, and ordinary noble ladies can only wear coral Bazhu. When a girl wears a Bazhu for the first time, it shows that she has grown up. According to traditional custom, her parents should hold a congratulating rite to show their sincere blessings. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Tibetan women sometimes were different headdresses and jewelry for different occasions, such as during mourning period. Tibetan girls in her mourning period, for example, are supposed to wear green hair strings in the first year, pale red strings in the second year, and reused red hair strings in the third year.

Tibetan Jewelry

Tibetan ornaments and jewelry includes as rings, bracelets, necklaces, made of red and yellow coral, Tibetan carnelian, yak bones, Tibetan silver, Tibetan copper, turquoise and other natural materials joined together with yak-hide string. The most common Tibetan ornaments are broad and delicately designed silver bracelets, peacock-blue yak-boned necklaces inlaid with turquoise, and dangling earrings made of red coral and Tibetan silver. Both men and women wear necklaces as well as bracelets and fingers rings. Metal coins and gems hang on the back of ladies, while men like to wear broadswords, pipes, neck articles, silver coins, and other ornaments.

Some Tibetan believe jewels put people in touch with deities and protected them from dangers in life. In the Himalayas, jewelry has traditionally been indicative of the social status and political power of the wearer. It also reflected the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Himalayan jewelry is often oversized and heavy, with elaborate surface design and an exuberance of color. The value of jewelry was historically determined by the intensity of color and size of the components, rather than the value in gems or precious metals. [Source: chinaculture.org]

The materials from which the objects were made were also believed to have healing properties. Gold was thought to have a range of restorative qualities in addition to increasing longevity and dispelling demons. Turquoise, pearls, coral and lapis lazuli were all invested with specific curative powers. Some Tibetan women cover themselves with spectacular jewelry: silver amulets, many necklaces of turquoise amber and coral, and long earrings. Coral is regarded as valuable because Tibet is so far from the sea. Zee, a kind of agate stone with black and white makings, is also greatly valued. Jewelry has traditionally been given as a dowry. Tibetans like turquoise and silver. They wear jewelry on their fingers and wrists, around their necks and in their hair. A traditional prayer necklace has 108 beads, the number of books in Tibetan Buddhist scripture. Earings are worn by both males and females. They have traditionally been tied on with chords. Most pilgrims were an amulet called a "gau" that holds a picture of the Dalai Lama or the owner’s protector god.

Among the Tibetan crafting techniques are encasing, inlaying, and making wire drawing. The techniques used decorate jewelry are also used on religious articles and everyday objects such as snuff bottles with hollowed-out designs; prayer wheels; barrels to hold rice for offering before Buddha images; and sea-snail-shaped ritual horns. The designs are mostly derive from religious beliefs and the lifestyle of the Tibetan people, often featuring symbols that convey special meaning. and the deeply-hued Tibetan silver is a mysterious temptation.

Tibetan silver products are handmade by Tibetan silversmiths are especially famous. Many the Tibetan silver bracelets are carved with the six-syllable mantra ("Om Mani Padme Hum"), which in Tibetan Buddhism is believed to have the ability to eliminate disease, fear of death, prolong life and increase wealth. Some pendants are in the design of Vajra, which in Buddhism is a ritual instrument for subduing demons, believed to dispel all sins and bring people power, courage, and intelligence. Tibetan opals fall into 12 categories according to the number of cat's-eyes one contains, each representing a particular meaning. For example, a one-eye opal represents brightness and wisdom, and a two-eye opal represents harmonious marital relationship and happy family life.

Tibetan Earrings and Amulet Boxes

In Tibet, both men and women wear ear ornaments, including ear rings, ear drops and ear nails. Tibetan men usually wear earrings on their left ear. Tibetan women wear earrings on both sides and enjoy more various texture and shape than men. Tibetan ear ornaments are typically made of gold, silver, copper and various semi-precious stones like turquoise. The most common earrings for Tibetan men are called "Aron". [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

Tibetan earrings are usually very large and are inlaid with stones. Some Tibetan earrings are in the shape of a twist. Most Tibetan ear nails are in a shape of flowers, in the middle of which is a semi-precious stone. Tibetan ear drops are mainly made of agate, turquoise or coral embedded in a metal base. Tibetan ear drops are relatively heavy. Tibetan men often use a rope to hang the drops on ears. In the old days, Tibetan officials wore eardrops in shape of Dorje Phurba (daggers) as symbols of their authority. Pastoral men have traditionally worn bigger earrings than farmers.

Amulets are often silver or bronze small boxes inlaid with pearls or precious stones and are used to contain clay or metal images of Buddha, Tibetan pills, Buddhist paintings or photos of a living Buddha. Gawu, the Tibetan women’s amulet or protective talisman, is a type of jewelry often worn around the neck of Tibetan women. They are usually very small, well-crafted boxes made of silver or copper or other precious metals. Their exterior contains very exquisite carving inlaid with pearls or other gems. Their interior usually contains a small image of the Buddha statues, sutras, magic knots and other things that ward off evil spirits. They may also contain an image of one's guru. A gawu box can be taken wherever one goes and used to invoke protection from the Buddhas and Dharma Protectors.

Coral and Turquoise in Tibetan Jewelry and Accessories

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Coral and turquoise are products of nature that have long been appreciated by Mongolian and Tibetan peoples, who used these precious materials as inlay on gold and silver wares or to complement pearls and amber for colorful and magnificent forms of personal ornamentation. For important ceremonial occasions, such jewelry was adorned in layers, creating a unique aesthetic trait in the culture of these nomadic peoples. Their coral was sourced from the Mediterranean Sea and the turquoise mined in Iran. Of significant value, these materials came to signify the status and economic clout of the person wearing them. Rare and semi-precious gems of coral, crystal, and clamshell not only were concrete symbols of Buddhism most excellent, the native Tibetan religion of Bon, with its reverence for nature, came to imbue them with protective powers as well. Thus, personal ornaments decorated with these gems served as symbols of auspiciousness, good fortune, and social status, becoming a unique image of beauty of the Mongolian and Tibetan peoples. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

On a silver hat finial with coral and turquoise inlay made in the 18th century the museum said: In Tibet, both men and women prefer wearing gemstones as personal accessories. The most common materials used to make such gemstones are corals, turquoise, and beeswax. Most of the corals in Tibet come from the Mediterranean Sea, the corals of which come from regions such as India and Kashmir. Tibet produces some of its turquoise; however, such turquoise is relatively greener in color and features brown patterns. The silver hat finial with coral and turquoise inlay presented here is relatively greener in color; thus, it may have been fabricated using local Tibet turquoise. Hat top accessories generally reflect social status. The hat top of the artifact exhibited here is made of partially gold-plated silver. The uppermost gemstone was lost, and coral beads are found between the turquoise and the beeswax. The bottommost layer contains petal-shaped turquoise surrounded by a circle of coral beads. Regarding the silver stand in the middle, it contains beeswax-made, melon-shaped beads at the top. The said beads are accentuated by coral beads of all sizes above and below them. The base of the artifact was hammered to create the desired shape, in which hammer marks are faintly discernible. The gilt is light in color and the bottom of the artifact is equipped with a screw-shaped lock presumably used to enable users to secure the artifact to hats. This artifact is simple and plain and is the work of local Tibetan artists.

On an 18th century pearl hat with turquoise inlay the museum said: During the Qing dynasty, Tibetan aristocrats had been conferred the titles of duke, jasagh, and taiji; such titles were subsequently incorporated into the Qing court's administrative system. Aristocrats of different social statuses and/or from different regions wore different hats. During festivals, female aristocrats in the Lhasa region wore pearl or coral caps. The said caps feature a triangular base that is covered with pulu on the first layer and stone beads on the second layer. Aristocrats of even higher social statuses wore pearl hats on top of the caps. The hats are made of wood and covered with layers of small connected pearls as well as scattered turquoise, the last of which is used as an embellishment. The top of the hats contains decorated turquoise with gold inlay, whereas the inside of the hats is coated with red paint, making the hats heavy and gorgeous. In addition to wearing pearl caps and accessories, the aristocrats regularly wear large turquoise earrings joined with their braids in front of their ears. Furthermore, they wear ga'u (a Buddhist container) in front of their chest together with strings of pearl ornaments, allowing them to exude a sense of Tibetan-styled prestige, elegance, and beauty.

Image Sources: University of Purdue, Kalachakranet.org, CNTO; Mandala images, Univeristy of Liverpool, Harvard Education Review

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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