Tag Archives: tribal

Gold before the Conquest

Tairona, X-XVI C. Columbia A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Tairona, X-XVI C.
Columbia – A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Pure gold is an element that has incredible working properties.  Even a small quantity can be put to use creatively, it can be hammered thinner than tissue paper, into a foil, and draped over wood forms.  Unlike copper and bronze, it is a dream for casting,  naturally free from oxidation means successful pours without the discovery of flux or other special technology.  It can be melted again and again without degrading, giving it a reputation of purity.  It never tarnishes, retaining its polish, and because it is highly ductile, one part of an artwork can be fused with focused heat without damaging other areas of the work, allowing complex forms to be built up with ease.

Zapotec, XVI C. Oaxaca, Mexico Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

Zapotec, XVI C.
Oaxaca, Mexico
Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

At the same time, the unalloyed metal is too soft to be used a tool or weapon.  Between its workability, beauty, and lack of usefulness, gold’s chiefly sensible employment through much of history has been as a creative medium, producing delicate objects that require gentle handling – really only useful for pleasant gifts, offerings, ceremonial cups, religious objects, and jewelry.   As a result, the earliest appearances of civilization are accompanied by gold working to some degree, where trade made it available, and its earliest disposable, symbolic character meant it went into graves and other places where at times it survives, often as virtually the only artistic record of a culture.

Spain, XVI C. Goldwork at the beginning of the conquest

Spain, XVI C.
Ring – Gold, enamel, Columbian emerald.  Produced with materials from the conquest.

From a raw material that circulates widely in tribal cultures, weighted for the value of its beauty alone, gold’s value changes when more organized, more imperial culture develops, and it becomes a unit of money.  As a culture grows more sophisticated, we see more gold concentrated in palaces and temples, and ultimately we see wars fought over it, and with it.

International Style Panama, V-VII C.

International Style
Panama, V-VII C.

In addition to distinct regional styles that reflect expansive cultures with visual vocabularies all their own, there is an International Style, works that have a simplified, trade oriented appearance to them.  There are also gold objects made as tribute, such as Mixtec and Zapotec works produced as payment to the Aztecs in their own themes.  Much like the ball-courts indicate the international popularity of the games and identify centers of tournaments, gold-work was clearly traded and had centers of production.  One of the greatest was in modern day Central America, especially Panama and Costa Rica, where various styles were produced for trade with neighboring cultures.   Centers with the longest known continuous production were in modern day Columbia and Peru, where the Incas obtained the discovery that gold could be burnished to a razor fine edge, and was being employed in surgery.

What follows is a visual sampling of major gold working cultures in the Americas. The work is sorted by centuries, to give a scope for develop over time.

Peru Chavin V-II BC

Chavin, V-II BC
Peru

Nazca II BCE - V CE Peru

Nazca
II BCE – V CE
Peru

Zenu, II BCE-X CE Columbia

Zenu, II BCE-X CE
Columbia

Peru Moche Headhunters I-III C

Moche, I-III C.
Peru
Headhunters and Severed Heads

Moche, I-III C. Peru

Moche, I-III C.
Peru
Condors

Tolima II C. Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

Tolima
II C.
Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

 

Panama, IV-V C.

Panama, IV-V C.

International Style, V-VII C. Panama

International Style, V-VII C.
Panama

Darien or Venado Beach V-VII C. Panama

Darien or Venado Beach
Deer God, II-VII C.
Panama

Yotoco or Calima VII C. Columbia

Yotoco or Calima
VII C.
Columbia

Wari VII-X C. Peru

Wari
VII-X C.
Peru
Refined silver embossing

Coclé  VIII-XV C. Panama

Coclé
VIII-XV C.
Panama

Nariño  VIII-XV C. Columbia

Nariño
Hummingbirds, VIII-XV C.
Columbia

Coclé Alligator Necklace Panama

Coclé
Alligator Necklace
Panama

Coclé Jade Nose Ring Panama

Coclé
Jade Nose Ring
Panama

Popoyan IX-XVI C. Columbia

Popoyan
IX-XVI C.
Columbia

 

Tairona Butterfly X-XVI C. Columbia

Tairona
Butterfly X-XVI C.
Columbia

Veraguas X-XVI C. Panama

Veraguas
X-XVI C.
Panama

Chiriquí XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Chiriquí
XI-XVI C.
Costa Rica

Diquis Lobster XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Diquis
Lobster XI-XVI C.
Clay casting, Costa Rica

Diquis XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Diquis
XI-XVI C.
Employment of varied sand grit to create texture. Costa Rica

Tumbaga Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI Columbia

Tumbaga
Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI
Columbia

 

Inca, XII C. Peru

Inca, XII C.
Peru

Inca, XII-XV C. Peru

Inca, XII-XV C.
Peru
Masterwork of Repousse and Fusing

 

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth XII-XVI Panama

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth
XII-XVI
Panama

Mixtec Lip Plugs 3 Mixtec Lip Plugs 2

Mixtec Lip Plugs, XVI C. Mexico

Mixtec
Lip Plugs, XVI C.
Mexico

Aztec Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C. Mexico

Aztec
Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C.
Mexico

 

Tibetan Silver – Artifacts to Counterfeits

This is a phenomenon that I have witnessed in my own lifetime – the complete transformation of “Tibetan Silver” from authentic and rare crafts to a generic term that can be applied to virtually anything silvery in color, a synonym for “Hilltribe Silver”, and a similar story of the rapid wholesale export of a culture’s handwork to collectors leading directly to a mass market term for unrelated merchandise.

lf31

Traditional Tribal Silver is Elaborate SIlver

Leaving it to the reader to contemplate its causes, here are some examples of the real things, treasured, prayed over, placed around children’s necks.  And then some of the modern fakes that carry a reputation few will ever be the wiser to.  Hopefully this will help clear some things up and spare buyers from deception.

First sign of a probable authentic piece - Huh? What the heck is this?

First sign of a probably authentic Tibet piece is the “Huh? What the heck is this?” Test

I would not have predicted it.  Having the benefit of friends with exotic, tribal interests when I was young, I was first introduced to the wonderful crafts of Tibet at a Renaissance Faire.  It wasn’t long before I watched stores stocked with these goods appear in nearly every college town in the country.  It made perfect sense for students – the ornaments were elaborate, bizarre, and incredibly affordable.  Everyone with a willingness to take risks, plus an open mind towards the world’s cultures, could find satisfyingly ornate ambiguity in the work.  Buddhas, when depicted, were charmingly rustic and understated, and writing, where it appeared, was in mysterious unintelligible Sanskrit, and there were lady Buddhas, fiery toothy demons, skulls, flowers, something for everyone.

Always rustic, the real stuff was obviously time consuming to make.

Always rustic, the real stuff was obviously time consuming to make. This piece was made primarily with chisels, carving into the metal.

Rings were chunky but never too gaudy.  Jewels, when present, were modest hand ground cabochons in earthy tones – pale turquoise, faded red coral, and lemony amber. The workmanship was routinely rough, and often had natural grime, scratches, dings.  Instruments had been played, drumskins dried out, Woodwork smelled of yak butter (quite seriously, it was used to seal and preserve) and the necklaces strung on cord perhaps even had some trace of the previous owner’s smell.  This all meant a young person with an eye on world exploration could own quality exotica, free of any evidence of modern manufacturing. The reward for having a taste for tribal aesthetics at that moment was to be able to decorate the dorm room with merchandise that looked like it belonged in a museum.

This is a ritual drinking bowl made out of a human skull.  Yes that's right, and though illegal untold numbers of these made in with the mountains of other stuff.

This is a ritual bowl made out of the top of a human skull. Yes, that’s right. While illegal, untold numbers of these made it through Customs among the mountains of other strangeness.

I wouldn’t have guessed that in a few decades, the plentiful stuff would actually run out.  Supply and demand, we usually assume, is in effect when low cost means there is an abundance of the material.  But there is a major difference between a steady supply, like sea water, and a sudden supply produced under pressure, like a broken fire hydrant.

Every colored stone had a trade value, often even beads are carefully framed.

Every colored stone had a real trade value; beads are carefully framed with the greatest care possible.  Even when skills are wonky, effort was considerable and the results are charming.

What happened, in the simplest of terms, is that everyone in Tibet, for one reason or another, began to sell their family jewels and handmade objects in the mid-20th century. As more people bought them, more was paid, and the faster their export began to cascade until cheap export knockoffs took their place. I write this with a mind towards showing how “Tibetan Silver” underwent a dramatic change in quality, from the authentic cultural production of a once massive, ancient Silk Road kingdom to a generic synonym for New Age fashion jewelry, so I’ll spare you economic theory.  This country was so isolated that not very long ago it was still using turquoise as a currency in certain parts. But faced with modernity meant being strapped for cash, not blue rocks.  This meant exporters with the guile were able to quickly fill up shipping containers with quality goods.  How could nimble hippies dancing on the campus green with their unusually fine jewels know that their favorite incense-burning import store was the compliment to something like a Las Vegas pawn shop halfway around the world?

Early export work uses the indian technique of combining stampings with wire applique to good rustic effect.  You could hear the buyers telling the TIbetans, "More amulets huh?  Look we need rings, bring us lots of rings."

Early, made for export work, uses the Indian technique of clustering stampings with wire ornament, and more lavish use of stones.  Rustic skill and imagination are still evident.  You could hear buyers telling Tibetan smiths, “More amulets, huh? Look we need rings, bring us lots of rings.”

The real stuff shows attention to detail doesn't rely on wire applique.

The real non-export stuff shows attention to detail, and doesn’t rely on wire.  Note the chisel work, even on the bail.  Attention to the bail is a sign the jeweler wasn’t being rushed in a production shop.

The influx of Tibetan imagery, artwork and handcrafts really began its stride in the late 1980s and hit full steam ten years later.  It begs the question, which came first, the popular sympathy here for Tibet that created interest in its culture, or the appearance of its affordable goods as ambassadors for growing interest in Tibet?  To be sure, there was a disconnect – Americans were faced with the uninterpreted presence of altar pieces, temple statuary, sacred paintings, and other accoutrements of a country that almost seemed to have just decided one day to give up its religion. One was usually able to learn the object’s name from the shop owner, and could tell it was soaked in symbolism… but that was about it.  Its every context was a mystery, and that appealed to many, granted a kind of permission to project into these objects new ideas that might age and tarnish immediately into something like legacy, history or tradition.  To be sure, these shops gave many American kids a taste of tribal tradition the likes of which they had no other access to.

ewbigtibet8-608

Two more examples of unhurried, skillful rustic chisel work and stamping.

il_570xN.290589280

Without precision tools, a different kind of quality comes from the ample free time of pastoral living, which made intricate traditional crafts possible.

Fast forward just fifteen years, and most of these shops were gone. It’s striking to realize there was such a brief window, a fraction of a generation, that would have even noticed.  Along with the pre-owned goods, during that import bubble workshops of local craftspeople appeared to produce export goods, reasonable reproductions of the more popular elements they had already been making.  These came pouring in alongside the finer and more rustic crafts, and helped keep the prices low.

mantra ring2

A common export ring, with the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Skillful hand-pierced lettering, with stamped appliques and wire decoration.

mantra ring

A modern wax casting of a similar Sanskrit ring, no craftsman (and no Tibet) involved.

A portable altar shrine, a centerpiece of craftsmanship.  Painstakingly hand repoussed, once a cherished possession.

A portable altar shrine, a centerpiece of craftsmanship. Painstakingly hand repoussed, with protective cloth covering, this was once a cherished possession.

A recent, though elaborate, imitation of a traditional altar.  Note the extensive use of wire filigree for fill.  The lavish use of stones on a sacred object is a giveaway.

A recent imitation of a shrine. Note the extensive use of wire filigree for fill. The lavish use of stones is off for a sacred object, they are too-bright (dyed), and the faceted low-grade gems a bizarre new novelty.  Not at all a traditional object.

While following the pattern of a traditional amulet box, the wire filigree marks it as recent, and designed for consumers.

While following the pattern of a traditional amulet box, the wire filigree and production shop uniformity marks it as recent, designed for export.

Another export item based on a traditional shape, made more tempting in gold, but relying on filigree and of poor skill.

Another export item based on a traditional shape, made more tempting in gold, but relying on filigree and of poor workmanship.  The Buddha (Chenrezig) is most certainly cast (resin and turquoise powder), and not a carving.  Probably made in India.

What has claimed the term “Tibetan Silver” today is truly bizarre, considering that nothing more than strung beads of the color scheme blue and red, or anything silver and mass produced at all, is apt to be called this today.  As if the metal itself is suggested to carry some mountainous property in it.  Whole websites in dubious English are dense with marginal New Age descriptions of Tibetan symbols, illustrated with counterfeit examples. The shift in meaning is so diluted, I can’t help but wonder if there is as much a demand in Asia as America for the lost mystique of Shangri-La, that has helped create the artificial response to demand.  It wouldn’t be right to call the dilution an amnesia, since the exotica poured in and vanished before consumer awareness had a chance to even register it. All that most people know about the curious time when another culture’s handcrafts came raining down on the streets of College-town America is the name of that country, and maybe who the Dalai Lama is.

$T2eC16hHJI!E9qSO-Rq)BQ44l,5!5!~~60_35

A very Tibetan symbol, the Double Dorje (crossed lightning), shown in a clean authentic style.

mala-accessory-pendant15a

A nicely carved casting of modern manufacture, possibly even designed on a computer. Probably from China, one giveaway that it’s not real is the tidy jumpring bail.

IMG_6172

A very poor workshop version, again with the modern bail.

63ffaa2a9630aeb020ff5884ab965356

An extra tricky one, this looks believable, but all the bright colors scream Chinese dyed stones, while the filigree just says sweatshop.

It’s similar to the way Egyptian and Mesoamerican symbols had their own American luxury goods fads in the 20s and 50s respectively, riding carrier waves of authentic items that led to stylistic imitations. The difference is that the real work came from a pool of archaeological goods discovering a market, while in Tibet it happened in real time, their culture was leaving, sold off, and as it was floating across the sea it was already mid-transformation into becoming pop culture kitsch here.  It has become “retro” even though the originating culture is still breathing, and in some places producing the authentic work!

SpreadTibets3

These are from Harper’s Bazaar

From Harper's Bazaar

Welcome to the Global Village, Tibet

To close, allow me to horrify you with some search results that turn up for “Tibetan Silver”.  None of these are authentic, all of them rely on the skills and techniques of traditional Tibetan crafts being forgotten, and reduced to a magical consumer legend within a word:

Vintage-jewelry-set-tibetan-silver-turquoise-Retro-necklace-earring-bracelet-women-dress-gift

This one sold as “Vintage Tibetan Retro”. Yikes.

TibetanJewelryTurquoiseNecklace

Glue and gravel for the tourists, Mexico style.

TibetanAntiqueNecklacecloseupdetails

This “Tibetan Antique Necklace” is so horribly false, it shouldn’t claim to come from any country, anywhere.

tibetan.jewelry_5

Leftover dyed bone beads from a girl scout craft bag = “Tibetan Jewelry”

tibetan-jewelry-jewellery-nnazaquat-95378

Red and blue palette plus imagination makes for a great Tibetan costume… for someone in Istanbul.