Bead research yields superb armchair travel. Through 13 years of building the IBISwoman collection of jewelry design materials I never tire of reading about beads as ornament, trade and social meaning around the world and across eras.
Good photographs and well-researched text is usually enough to transport and inform. But a peak experience? That’s when an antiquity is actually in hand. Now that’s transportation to another time.
I experienced exactly that upon opening a box containing the newest addition to the IBISwoman collection: three Sherpa coral strands from the early 1900s. These chunky, wheel-shaped glass beads were made as substitutes for real coral beads for the Sherpa people of the Himalayan region in Nepal.
The Sherpas are perhaps best known as guides to Mount Everest mountain climbers. They also are craftspeople, monks, farmers, writers, philosophers and traders for whom clans and lineage rule society, even in modern times. They work and live and work at the foot of the Himalayas among related peoples — the Limbus, Rais, Magars, Gurungs, Thankalis and Tamangs.
Today younger members of the Sherpa culture wear jeans, tee shirts, sweaters and shoes much like ours; older clan members wear traditional pieces. Regardless of age, most Sherpas treasure and wear jewelry as they have over the ages. Most believe that wearing brings good health and fortune. Often seen are auspicious stones, especially dzi agate, and gold earrings. Small metal prayer boxes on leather or chain also are common.
The most treasured jewelry materials? Turquoise and coral, popular for wearing every day and especially during festivals and rites. When real sea coral could not be acquired or afforded by the Sherpas, they found glass likenesses would do. As early as the l700s, Sherpas turned to trading with Chinese and Indian glassmakers — even craftspeople from as far away as Italy and Bohemia — to produce these glass likenesses of coral, and soon it became known as Sherpa coral.
Today, old Sherpa coral — while still worn and passed from generation to generation of the Sherpa people — is more difficult to find. Glass colors range from yellow-tinged orange to angel coral deep pink and true red. Made with pitting to resemble real coral, the antique strand of Sherpa coral should also show wear and age.
Now I hold them in my hand, and the weights and textures carry me into the past — and into the next set of jewelry designs. Doesn’t get better