Inside the Collection

Asian jewellery at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Photograph of Ornament for headdress
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.

Photograph of Haircomb (kushi)
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.

Photograph of Carved jadeite belt hook with dragon motif
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.

Photograph of Carved jade hairpin with scoop end
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.

Photograph of Hairpin
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.

Photograph of Haircomb
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’.

Photograph of three Hairpins
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

3 responses to “Asian jewellery at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

  • Hello,
    I am wondering if the curator, Min-Jung Kim, could possibly be in touch with me. I am an artist and interested in finding out more about the technique called ‘tian-tsui’, which is the laying over colourful bird feathers onto metal. I understand the technique died out last century.

  • @Jill Pickering
    I’m not the curator, but I do know a thing or two about the technique. It is still very much alive and used in the manufacturing of head-dresses and hair ornaments for Chinese Opera singers. However, the material employed has changed from kingfisher feathers to blue silk and/or dyed poultry feathers.

    Kingfishers cannot be domesticated. Hence, the only way to obtain kingfisher feathers in quantities sufficient for the commercial production of tian-tsui jewelry would be to trap and kill the birds en masse-there are only 28 usable feathers on each bird. It is currently illegal to intentionally trap or kill kingfishers in the PRC and most other countries.

    Here are two links to a Mandarin tutorial on the tian-tsui technique using polyester ribbon: (pt 1)
    A strip of wheat starch& water mixture just wider than the semi-deconstructed ribbon is painted onto a smooth, absorbent paper (the artist uses xuan paper, used for Chinese calligraphy and brush-painting). The length of semi-deconstructed ribbon is laid onto this adhesive strip and saturated with the starch-water mixture.

    The ribbon is left to dry & stiffen until ~90% dry (or when you can peel it off without any of the paper being stuck to the ribbon), then moved to a new sheet of paper so that any remaining moisture can be absorbed away. (pt 2)
    This deals with inlaying the pieces of stiffened ribbon into the base (which can be papier mache as well as metal). the shapes of the various ribbon pieces are traced onto both sides of a sheet of paper. The ribbon pieces are adhered to the shapes on one side of the paper using blu-stik.

    The pieces of paper-ribbon assemblage are then cut out following the outline on the other side of the paper, and glued/inlaid into the base. A firm pressing-down of the inlays (covering the inlays with a piece of clean cloth first) ought to secure them firmly to the base. The direction in which the various ribbon pieces are inlaid is crucial to the visual effect of the finished piece, and should be planned out prior to making the inlays. The author also recommends a pinking shear for cutting out the ribbon pieces.

    The above method is also easily applicable to dyed poultry feathers and blue silk.

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