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From Shells To Precious Stones | The History of Wearable Art (Part Three)

In the history of wearable art the Indian subcontinent is like an immovable mountain, unchanged by the rampaging storms and floods that scarred its foothills.

Of all the nations in the world India has the longest legacy of jewellery making, having spent almost 5000 years honing this craft. The first evidence of rudimentary pieces were carved and left by the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization (northeast Afghanistan, modern day Pakistan and north-western India). This was one of the three earliest known civilisations that populated the Old World. Of those three it was the largest and most widespread, flourishing on the basins alongside the Indus River. Amongst the many findings that have been recovered from this lost people there are also collections of intact Gold earrings and necklaces, as well as crude metallic bangles and myriad beaded pieces. Before 2100 BC and the wider usage of metals, beads were presumed to be the most popular trade throughout the Indus Valley. They were fashioned using a series of simple techniques, starting with a rough source stone – most likely bought from a stone trader – which would then be held in an oven and heated until it transformed to a burning red. Ancient historians posit the likelihood that this colour was highly prized by the people of the Indus valley. When the stone had gained this coveted red it would be chipped and ground to a suitable size. Then a hole would be bored through the middle of the stone using a primitive auger. Finally these ancient lapidarists would polish the stone and perhaps even paint a personal design on its smooth surface, creating a bead.

It is widely believed that the craft of bead making was a hereditary discipline passed down through each family. According to this theory children would be trained as bead cutters from a very young age. Most commonly the beads would then be worn by women, cut into smaller shapes, often about one millimetre long, and threaded into their hair. Clay or painted shell bracelets cut into hoops were also very popular. Then as the Indus civilisation became more advanced these clay bangles were discarded for more durable pieces. Nowadays clay has almost disappeared from India entirely and bangles are instead made from metal or glass. Other jewellery found in the Indus Valley includes skinny bands of Gold, earrings, simple brooches, chokers and rings.

It would be erroneous to imply that the Indian Subcontinent was the only region that was producing jewellery at this time. In fact there are whole collections of jewellery that can be traced to China from around the same period. Many of the distinct styles and designs were carried with the spread of Buddhism, approximately 2000 years ago. From these plentiful findings historians have gleaned that Chinese favoured the use of Silver and were less appreciative of Gold. In many cases delicate blue kingfisher feathers were left tied to early pieces of Chinese jewellery and later designs were comprised of brilliant blue gems and glass. Funnily enough China was averse to wearing or making earrings, which were worn by neither men nor women. Amulets, on the other hand, were very popular and often embellished with Chinese symbols or legendary animals such as the dragons or phoenixes. This kind of special decorative jewellery was usually recovered amongst the assorted grave goods that accompanied the departed on their journey to the afterlife.

Of all the natural treasures that were prevalent in Chinese jewellery design, none were more highly cherished than Jade. Indeed the Chinese revered Jade for its mystical and physical properties, which they likened to the most desirable human values: hardness, durability and beauty. The first Jade pieces that were recovered are distinguishable for their simplicity. However the designs soon became much more complex and Jade rings came into use some time between the 4th – 7th centuries BC. Interestingly these rings exhibit evidence that they were shaped using a compound milling machine. What’s most staggering about this is the fact that if such a machine was used, it would’ve been hundreds of years prior to the first mention of such technology in the West. This would give testimony to the Eastern superiority of this era.

Despite the fact that the Indian Subcontinent escaped much of the turmoil that interrupted European jewellery design, there were several cultural and political incidents whereby the steady progress fluctuated. That being said, though, India always boasted an ample supply of precious metals and gems. This was one of their chief exports and also a key asset used at opportune moments to sweeten exchanges with other countries. Unlike Europe, which was beset by the conquests of squabbling empires, India profited from the perpetual development of its art forms. In time they adopted Persian styles and characterised their stones in relation to the vivid stories that colour Hinduism. This belief system also dictated that Gold and Silver were sacred and thereby became the quintessential metals used in Indian jewellery. In fact Gold was symbolic of the burning sun, while silver was supposed to recall the icy moon. Indian poetry maintains that, since pure Gold doesn’t oxidise or corrode, it should be associated with immortality. Furthermore Gold imagery has suffused ancient Indian literature, reaching as far back as the Vedic story of cosmological creation. In this story the original source of physical and spiritual human life is described as a great golden womb, or, in Hindu terms, a ‘hiranyagarbha’. This alludes to the significance of the sun in the story of life. The Vedic text also then refers to an ethereal light raised from the primordial waters of an infant Earth. Suffice it to say that the Indians don’t share the Chinese’s relative disinterest in Gold. Indeed they have since used it to affirm the sanctity of some of their most important religious sites, such as the Golden Temple of Amritsar.

In the Indian Subcontinent, as with every civilisation on record, jewellery was regarded as a symbol of high status. It was also often associated with royalty and other elitist factions to such a degree that the Indians once even established strict laws to limit the wearing of jewellery to their most valued figureheads. This conservatism was continued by some followers of the Muslim faith, whereby women are still restricted to wearing only subtle ear jewellery. During this authoritarian period there were a few others who were awarded the right to dress their feet with Gold ornaments, although this was seen by some to undermine the enforced sanctity of their sacred metals. For the most part Indian culture dictated that only their Maharajas (emperors) and their royal relations would have the right to sport finely crafted pieces jewellery. It was believed that the Maharajas not only deserved, but were also the only ones capable of having an intimate connection with jewellery. Hindu philosophers described them as being intrinsically linked to the shaping of the world. They were seen as a divine being; a deity incarnate, instated to uphold and maintain dharma, which they saw as the moral light of the universe.

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