Feature

Ethnic jewelry — a priceless
beauty

As an archipelago, Indonesia is home to many ethnic groups whose culture and heritage are reflected on their rich jewelry designs.

Jewelry has a long history. Usually worn as a body adornment, jewelry is a testament to skill that can link people to culture and history.

In Indonesia, ethnic jewelry is a priceless national heritage representing cultures that have existed since the Neolithic era.

The country’s jewelry serves as a symbol that distinguishes a culture’s characteristics, identity, beliefs and traditions, as well as serving as a remarkable example of the expertise of the artisans.

Since the 19th century, the country’s ethnic jewelry has attracted admirers of ethnography and art. They have since been hunting and collecting these valuable gems and treasures to remote areas across archipelago in order to get in touch with local people to discover more about their cultures.

Among those jewelry lovers is Mahfred Giehmann, a cartographer.

Giehmann’s usually maps remote places on commission from various mining and oil companies. He got engaged in the exploration of the archipelago’s resources, which later introduced him to Indonesian ethnic jewelry.

Over a period of nearly 30 years, Giehmann has amassed a collection of over 900,600 pieces of jewelry reviewed in the book.

After such a long period, he was inspired to document his collection — a process that started in 2008 — aiming to honor the legacy of the country’s living cultures and traditions, which are slowly changing as a result of modernity.

In the book, Giehmann said that his admiration of jewelry started back during his boyhood in France when he was rewarded for completing grade schhol with the gift of book titled Les Naufragés de Borneo, or The Shipwrecks of Borneo, which he claimed showed him an exotic world of apes, treasures, jungle and precious stones.

Ethnic Jewellery from Indonesia was written by a leading art expert and writer, Bruce W. Carpenter, who has published over 20 books on Indonesian art. Jewelry is among Carpenter’s interests.

The book contains a study of Giehmann’s jewelry collection, which includes pieces from tribal societies such as the Dayak of Kalimantan as well as those from Buddhist and Islamic kingdoms.

The beautiful pieces depicted in the book come from diverse places, including Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, East Nusa Tenggara and Maluku.

Java and Bali are not included since they are major subject by themselves. However, their influence can clearly be seen. The ephemeral jewelry of the Melanesian cultures of West Papua is also not included here.

The book is supplemented by an introduction by Dr. Antonio J. Guerreiro, a leading scholar and expert on Southeast Asian arts and culture.

In the book, Guerreiro affirmed that Giehmann’s collection covers half of the 60 largest ethnic groups in the nation. He also disclosed the role of jewelry as a sacred thing that plays an important roles in traditional ceremonies.

In the main text, Carpenter illustrates the evolution of body adornment and jewelry from the materials from which they are made, from the earliest ones made from animal bones, teeth and tusks and even seashells to those crafted from metals such as gold, silver and precious stones.

His description revealed that jewelry gradually developed along with the evolution of the civilization. Local culture was influenced by foreign cultures that entered into an area.

Astonishingly, as Carpenter concludes, although the physical form of jewelry has not evolved over time, the function and belief behind jewelry remain the same, even up until the present day. Although many old traditions are disappearing, there are some cultures that still continue their traditions and keep their heritage proudly alive.

In seven chapters, the book classifies jewelry according to which island they come from, allowing readers to look at magnificent pieces crafted by artisans through beautiful and colorful photographs by Philippe Heurtault.

Heurtault is an established photographer who has worked for world famous fashion magazines and fashion icons, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.

Through the photos, readers can understand Carpenter’s explanation. The photos provide details of the jewelry, such as combs, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, hair ornaments and others made from several materials including gold, beads, bones, silver and other metals like brass or adorned with precious stones, coral and pearls.

Apart from Heurtault’s photos, several old photos of ethnic people wearing their jewelry or participating in cultural activities using their body adornments are on display.

The book, while offering extensive information to give readers an understanding about ethnic jewelry and its connection to the cultural life of the country’s different ethnic groups, aims to inspire scholars, artisans and others to discover more about the country’s rich cultural heritage that is sadly almost extinct.

Ethnic Jewellery from Indonesia, Continuity and Evolution
Bruce W. Carpenter
Philippe Heurtault
Editions Didier Millet, 2011
327 pages

Paper Edition | Page: 7

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