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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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: