Lac Jewelry - Bug-based Beauty

2013 Sep 1 - by dulhan
Lac jewelry is jewelry for the masses.  You can walk down a street in a bustling Indian city and find half a dozen craftsmen curling the lac around a wire base, pressing small beads or mirrors into the rapidly-cooling resin, and hawking their chunky bangles at passersby.

Lac Bangle Shop

  • Who: Lac or lacquer jewelry
  • What: Jewelry that has a lac base sometimes spun around a thick wire and embellished with glass beads and mirrors.
  • When: Unknown
  • Where: Originally it is from West Rajasthan and centers today in Bihar and Hydrabad
  • Process: The resinous lac is melted, rolled, and flattened into predetermined shapes.  As it cools, craftsmen colorwork by twisting multiple strands of it together or creating inlay patterns.  Embellishments are applied.

Lac Bug

Lac is a thick, waxy substance excreted by the female Tachardia lacca, a scale insect indigenous to the forests of India, during development and reproduction.  It's actually the only resin that comes from an animal origin.

The process of creating lac begins with the harvesting of stick lac (which is 68% resin).  Tree twigs covered in the lac bug's secretions are collected and trimmed.  The stick lac is scraped off the sticks and put in a tub full of water.  There it is either stomped (á la wine-making) or pounded with a pestle.  This cleans the lac and forces it to release its natural bright red color.  The lac powder that is created can then be dried and converted into shellac, which is a substance commonly found in cloth dye and varnishes as well as jewelry.

Lac extends to all jewelry pieces - necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, etc.  But the most common incarnation of lac jewelry is bangles, which are very popular in Rajasthan and Bihar.

The original lac craftsmen were village jewelry-makers in tribal Rajasthan and today lac is made all around the subcontinent.  In total, the lac-making industry involves nearly five million people, mostly rural people, and is centered in Bihar.

Goldsmiths sometimes use lac to fill the hollow centers of jewelry pieces to maintain the pieces form throughout its lifetime.  This practice dates back to the early Indus Valley Civilization of Ancient India (3300-13000 B.C.E.).  Basically lac has been around as long as there have been Indians.

Nowadays, lac bangles are made from wax or plastic in street markets because these materials are much cheaper than the lac that comes from bugs.

To make a lac bangle, first the cube of lac (or wax or plastic) must be melted down (usually over a chula, or stove).  As it melts, the lac is smoothed over the head of a large rolling pin-like tool.

Colors can be mixed in by melting a few cubes of lac simultaneously and smoothing them over opposite sides of the tool. Twisting the colors around the tool's head while rolling allows the jewelry-maker to create a variety of patterns.

The lac is rolled off the tool (as shown above) in a skinny strand, twisted around a mold to size it, then crimped to a wire base to make a bangle.

Lac is a huge huge industry in Rajasthan and many impoverished people make their living off of it.  The actual process of making lac bangles and jewelry, though, is incredibly dangerous and can give the makers breathing problems, skin allergies, and deep burns among other things. The video above gives you an up close look at the bangle-making process and the issues surrounding it.

Still, lac is a tradition in the rural parts of Indian, and you can see married women in Bihar and West Bengal wearing real lac bangles.

Lac jewelry is especially colorful and intricate as it sometimes sports glass beads, mirrors, or a glass coating on top.  It constantly changes with new trends and styles.  The sheer amount of vendors producing lac means that the diversity of lac jewelry is unrivaled.

Sources: Traditional Jewelry of India by Oppi UntrachtCultural India, and India Unheard/Video Volunteers

Photos courtesy of ESPN Cricinfo, Finders FreeAnita Satyajit, and Balavenise