Asian jewellery at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

A3328 Ornament for headdress, double happiness symbol, silver, inlaid with kingfisher feathers, China, about 1800 . Collection: MAAS
A3328 Ornament for headdress, double happiness symbol, silver, inlaid with kingfisher feathers, China, about 1800. Collection: MAAS

The exhibition A Fine Possession: Jewellery and Identity (24 September 2014 – 20 September 2015), currently showing at the Museum, is a wonderful opportunity to showcase our previously unseen Asian jewellerry.

The Museum holds 170 Japanese combs and hairpins from the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, nearly 400 Chinese and Japanese belt toggles, and a group of Chinese jade hairpins and belt hooks from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The Museum’s Asian jewellery collection also includes Chinese kingfisher-feather inlaid hair ornaments, Miao silver alloy jewellery, Chinese Mandarin beads and hat finials, an Indonesian man’s ceremonial headpiece and Malaysian belt buckles or pendings.

Asian jewellery has rarely been the focus of museum collections in Australia, however, this Museum has a unique and diverse Asian jewellery collection.

A4840, Haircomb (kushi), tortoiseshell, lacquer, pearl shell, gold, Japan, Edo period (1868 – 1912)
A4840, Haircomb (kushi), tortoiseshell, lacquer, pearl shell, gold, Japan, Edo period (1868 – 1912). Collection: MAAS

According to the Oxford Dictionary, jewellery is defined as ‘personal ornaments, such as necklaces, rings, or bracelets that are typically made from or contain jewels and precious metal’. However, in the Asian context, jewellery can be more broadly understood. Whereas in Europe and many parts of the world, beautifying or adorning the body generally involves decorating bare skin such as the neck, wrist and fingers. In Asia, particularly East Asia jewellery seems to have developed differently. Many items of jewellery evolved from being abstract talismanic items of personal adornment to being functional aspects of dress.  Some of the earliest known items include belt hooks, hairpins and earrings, as well as mirrors which had a role in adornment as reflectors of beauty and as objects worn or carried on the person. Social standing, personal taste and the availability of raw materials determined design and materials. For thousands of years, different items matured at different times, and to some degree their evolution was never complete, as objects continued to convey meaning even when they served a functional role.

H7962, Carved jadeite belt hook with dragon motif, China, about 1800s
H7962, Carved jadeite belt hook with dragon motif, China, about 1800s. Collection: MAAS

Asia is a particularly culturally diverse region and expressions of identity cover a very broad spectrum. Different materials are considered as ‘precious’by different cultures. For example, the Chinese have favoured jade since ancient times and valued it more highly than precious metals such as gold. Jade was so highly valued that it was equated in importance with the king. The character for ‘king (王 )’ in Chinese originated from the form of a string of jade beads and the character for ‘jade (玉)’is almost identical except for the additional dot. Chinese artisans developed highly sophisticated techniques for carving jade; some examples shown here are a belt hook and a hairpin. In the first century CE, Xu Shen described jade as follows in his book Discussion of writing and explanations of character:

Jade is the fairest of stones.
It is endowed with five virtues.
Charity is its lustre, bright yet warm;
Rectitude is its translucency, revealing the colour and markings within;
Wisdom is its pure and penetrating note when struck.
It is courage, for it can be broken but does not bend;
Equity is its sharp edges which injure none.

A 5477, Carved jade hairpin with scoop end, Chinese figure within foliate design and bat motifs, China, about 1800s
A 5477, Carved jade hairpin with scoop end, Chinese figure within foliate design and bat motifs, China, about 1800s. Collection: MAAS

Another distinctive feature in East Asia is that hair ornaments such as combs and hairpins are among the most popular forms of jewellery. This is probably due to the nature of Asian dress, in particular for the Chinese and Japanese, who tend not to reveal much skin, while their striking jet-black Asian hair offers a background against which such jewels shine.

A7234-2, Hairpin, gilded metal, kingfisher feather, glass, seed pearl, China, about 1800s
A7234-2, Hairpin, gilded metal, kingfisher feather, glass, seed pearl, China, about 1800s. Collection: MAAS

The Chinese adored hair ornaments made from kingfisher feathers with their gloriously iridescent ultramarine to turquoise-blue hues. Kingfisher feathers were first featured in ornaments as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and, over time, Chinese artisans developed sophisticated techniques to create from them a variety of dress embellishments and accessories. Kingfisher feather jewellery was very highly valued and denoted status, wealth and royalty.

A4829 Haircomb, wood, lacquer, gold, Japan, Late Edo Period (1800-1868)
A4829 Haircomb, wood, lacquer, gold, Japan, Late Edo Period (1800-1868). Collection: MAAS

In the case of Japan, rings, necklaces and earrings had little or no place on the already elaborate traditional Japanese dress; as a result, lacquer combs (kushi) and hairpins (kanzashi) would have been the only additional embellishment. Yet these hair ornaments were a vital part of Japanese fashion as they expressed a women’s character, social class and religion. There is an ancient Japanese proverb that clearly demonstrates the importance of these hair ornaments, ‘A woman’s hair is her life’.

2012/82/1 Hairpins (3), 'Comb for Otohime', PET bottles, silver, designed and made by Rui Kikuchi (b. 1982), Osaka, Japan, 2010
2012/82/1 Hairpins (3), ‘Comb for Otohime’, PET bottles, silver, designed and made by Rui Kikuchi (b. 1982), Osaka, Japan, 2010. Collection: MAAS

The Asian jewellery collection at the Museum continues to grow and reflect contemporary society. Their designs and materials have expanded to cover a much broader spectrum with diverse meanings. For example, a set of hairpins in the above image, made by Rui Kikuchi (b.1892), was made of discarded PET bottles and the design is a result of an unusual but highly successful combination of kirigami, the traditional Japanese paper-cutting technique that relies on a repetitive pattern made by folding and cutting paper. Kikuchi hopes to communicate though her works that people can recognize beauty within mundane objects.

Written by Min-Jung Kim, Curator

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