Bhutia Jewelry - Tribal Elegance of the Himalayas

2013 Aug 31 - by dulhan
India is home to a variety of tribes that almost exist within their own cultural bubble.  The Bhutia tribe are Sikkimese of Tibetan ancestry and they live along the right arm of the Indian subcontinent.  Bhutia jewelry is unlike most traditional Indian jewelry even though it is just as old.  It is heavily influenced by Tibetan and Chinese jewelry and has some origins in ancient Persian superstition.

  • Who: Bhutia jewelry
  • What: Jewelry made by the Bhutia tribe of the Indian state of Sikkim.
  • When: The dzi bead was brought to India somewhere between 2000 and 1000 B.C.E..
  • Where: The kingdom of Sikkim, India's 22nd state.
  • Process: Varies based on the material.

Bhutia jewelry is hard to typify into one motif, process, or style.  They favor gold, silver, coral, turquoise, and dzi beads in their  jewelry.  Bhutia men and women both culturally love gold  and only 24 karat gold is used in making Bhutia jewelry.

Dzi beads are made of stone and are kept as amulets in many Asian cultures, including Tibetan.  Sometimes they are ground up in to Tibetan medicine. The original Dzi beads were made of natural agate and their origins are unknown.  There are many myth surrounding the beads, some of which can be read here.

The small red spots found on the white part of the dzi bead are known as "blood spots" and form because of cinnabar contained in the stone.  These are rare and make the bead more valuable. Today one of these traditional dzi bead can go for thousands of dollars so modern Bhutia jewelry makers generally stick to newly-made stone ones instead.

The oldest dzi beads that have been found date back to 2000 to 1000 B.C.E. in India.  They are believed to have been brought back by Tibetan soldiers from raids in ancient Persia or Tajikistan.

Dzi beads have a series of waves, geometric shapes, and lines that decorate them.  They stand out in stark ivory white against the bead which is usually black or brown.  These swirls and lines are thought to be symbolic patterns.  Historians still are not sure exactly how the symbols are formed on the surface of the bead but some agree they are made by a combination of sugar and heat, etched with natron, and preserved with wax, clay, or something similar.

The "eyes" on the dzi bead, or the circular shapes each one has, differ in number and shape from bead to bead and represent different things.  Possibly they were meant to ward off the evil eye (almost like turning the gaze back).  The most "eyes" found on an ancient dzi bead is twelve and any more is considered non-traditional and possibly fake.

Photos courtesy of EniJew, The Beads of Burma blog, Spirit Bear Beads, Darjeeling and is Mountain Railway

Sources: Daagina, Wikipedia - Dzi Bead and Bhutia, Dzi Beads