Spotting a gem or two on high ground

Jewellery of Tibet and the Himalayas

January 7, 2005

The first 60 pages of this short but informative book by John Clarke give a potted geographical and historical introduction to Tibetan-speaking regions and their culture, followed by chapters on why jewellery is worn: the symbolism, folklore and beliefs involved in the use of jewellery; the metals, gemstones, corals and pearls used in its manufacture; craftsmen and their work; and jewellery in Nepal.

These sections of the book are informed by the reading of scholarly works and relevant travelogues, a familiarity with a wide range of objects and photographic records in many collections, and many years'

experience of travelling and working with craftsmen in the area.

The Himalayas of the title are in effect restricted to Tibetan-speaking areas plus the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, yet there are many other communities. Never mind, the first half of the book eschews the aesthetic waffle and half-baked history familiar from many such works designed for a wide audience, in favour of solid and well-considered information from a variety of angles: historical, economic, social, cultural and religious.

The study of jewellery in these parts of the world, as elsewhere, is hampered by a lack of historical depth. Little jewellery has been found in archaeological contexts. Jewellers do not sign and date their work, and owners often sell, break up and recycle objects for economic reasons or fashion. However, Clarke has at least demonstrated one source for future exploration: the study of jewellery portrayed in Tibetan painting and sculpture. Comparative studies of the jewellery of neighbouring lands should also prove a rich field for further research, particularly as craftsmen of foreign origin or ancestry have often played a major role in manufacturing and transporting these eminently tradable items.

The second half of the book is a catalogue of 70 plates of individual pieces of jewellery and photographs of jewellery in use. These are arranged regionally to cover Lhasa, central and southern Tibet, eastern Tibet, western Tibet, Ladakh and Bhutan and Sikkim, and Nepal. This again is extremely useful as a starting point to analyse and comprehend the art form.

Most of the main categories of object are illustrated, though in a work of this length only the surface can be scratched. I missed the more spectacular jewellery of Amdo (northeast Tibet), as illustrated, for example, by P. Normantas in the absurdly titled and textually weak The Invincible Amdo Tibetans (in Clarke's bibliography).

There is a handy map, a good bibliography, a glossary and an index. This is a most welcome publication, and a lengthier version would be something to look forward to.

Philip Denwood is reader in Tibetan studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Jewellery of Tibet and the Himalayas

Author - John Clarke
Publisher - V&A Publications
Pages - 128
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 1 85177 423 8

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