Indonesian Tribes and their Jewelry Making Traditions

Ceremonial Jewelry in Indonesia – Part II
Indonesian Tribes and their Jewelry Making Traditions

People throughout the world have always worn some form of jewelry for religious purposes and traditional ceremonies, as amulets, status symbols and body adornment. Since prehistoric times Indonesians have been acquainted with jewelry and jewelry-making techniques. They had the technology to make necklaces of shells and animal bones and teeth, which they perforated with simple drills so that they could be strung together. With the diaspora of Austronesian tribes new migrants arrived in the Indonesian archipelago, bringing new ideas and technologies which allowed the more sophisticated production of rings, necklaces and bracelets from clay, semi-precious stones, iron and gold. With the metal age came the skill of mixing metals. Copper was combined with tin to produce bronze and alloys came into vogue. Many of the gold jewelry designs are from the 3rd – 8th centuries, known as the Proto-Classic period, an important period in the development of gold working techniques in South-east Asia. Heat was used to work gold and sophisticated techniques like casting and soldering. The advent of Buddhism, Hinduism and later Islam had a profound effect upon the course and evolution of Indonesian ethnic jewelry. New motifs (stylized lotus flowers and Arabic calligraphy) appeared and techniques like niello, an etching technique that can create delicate raised patterns. Later came the influence of Chinese and European motifs.

Indonesia is said to be made up of over 400 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own language and culture, and by extension, their own jewelry making traditions. In Sumatra the Batak Toba made jewelry from copper alloys and a gold-copper mix. Though their jewelry is a bit stark in comparison to the splendor of other Batak tribes, they produced very nicely woven bronze bracelets. They also used ivory to fashion massive bracelets and bone to make combs with finely chiseled decorations. The well known duri-duri (meaning thorn), open oval shaped ear ornaments with radiating spikes, were fashioned from brass, bronze, silver and gold. The Batak Karo produced more exuberant jewelry, spiral bracelets and huge spiral ear ornaments called padung-padung from solid brass. The Minangkabau of central Sumatra have one of the oldest jewelry traditions in Indonesia. For them, jewelry was of special importance to establish identity and status. They preferred gold and made extensive use of red coral. In West Sumatra women wore pure gold headdresses, forehead crowns, tiaras and elaborate hair ornaments in wedding ceremonies. They also wore beautiful gold necklaces finely worked with intricate patterns.

The tribes of Borneo, particularly the Dayak, enjoyed frequent contacts with other islanders from the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Sumatra and the later Islamic Malay courts and their jewelry shows this influence. The Iban, the sea Dayak of Western Kalimantan created elaborate golden headdresses made of copper alloys, later silver. Borneo’s jewelry attest to the most varied influences: the tribal past, international trade, immigrant culture, itinerant silversmiths and the sophisticated courts of the Malay kingdoms established in Banjarmasin and Kutai. Materials used were shells, glass beads, ivory and hornbill in the early days; later silver was extensively used to make finely crafted filigreed belts and astonishing bridal hairpieces. The Dayak peoples from Eastern and Southern Kalimantan retained many core ancestral beliefs but at the same time were strongly influenced by the culture of the Malay kingdoms. Of particular interest are carved amulets and shaman’s necklaces fashioned from bear teeth, ivory, wood, beads and shell in intricate patterns to protect against black magic. Bearpaws provided protection and were not only included in necklaces but also hung from backslings used to carry babies. Eastern Kalimantan produced the super heavy brass rings worn in distended earlobes by both men and women. Another interesting piece jewelry is the modesty plate made of gold or silver, or both, that was worn by young children to protect them against malevolent spirits. It was usually a triangular shaped plate that was suspended from string and worn over the genital area of both boys and girls. The designs on these modesty plates could be very ornate.

Due to its central location within the Indonesian archipelago, Sulawesi enjoyed extensive trade connections and functioned as a major center of Austronesian culture with a strong Bronze Age metallurgy culture that fashioned bronze and gold jewelry including the oval-shaped taiganja, protective pendants from bronze, brass or copper alloys and snake shaped male headdresses (sangguri) which were considered a symbol of wealth, power and fertility. There is some unique jewelry that dates back to the 12th-14th CE, now sadly lost and no longer being made , like the rare Kamagi snake bead technique where numerous interlocking zigzag shaped beads are strung together to form a long necklace. The Toraja people of central Sulawesi are known for their extravagant and elaborate funeral rites which have their roots in a complex set of ancient animist practices and which survive to the present day. Elaborate heirloom jewelry like lola-lola (immense and heavy engraved arm bands) and gold, silver and glass beaded necklaces is worn at these and other ceremonial functions to denote the status and wealth of the family. Jewelry not only adorned people during ceremonial events or celebrations but was also used to attire sacrificial animals, especially the prized buffalo. Brightly colored beads, sequins and silver coins were also stitched onto ceremonial garments, belts and collars or fashioned into overskirts worn on top of a sarong. The Buginese in South Sulawesi had similar traditions and for both tribes, the belief that their ancestors arrived by boat inspired their architecture and jewelry craft which includes boat shaped imagery like the famous Toraja dwellings and crescent shaped head ornaments worn by the Bugis. Their opulent jewelry also reflects the influence of international trade and their wealthy royal courts. They converted to Islam in the early 1600’s and this is evident in the use of Arabic calligraphy in their designs. Unique to Buginese culture are the Kuwari, finely worked round pendants fused with magical symbols and Arabic calligraphy to protect against black magic. The Bugis were fond of wearing silver and pure gold bracelets with filigreed flower motifs and small exquisitely worked amulet boxes in silver or gold which were hung around the neck and contained protective inscriptions or other magical symbols like an umbilical cord or a pinch of ancestral or sacred earth. They also made exquisite gold necklaces, long dangling earrings, silver or gold belt buckles, and modesty plates called caping decorated with flowers or geometric designs; they made keris with beautifull handles and sheaths, decorated with geometrics and flower patterns. Some Buginese headdresses for men were made from woven fabric embellished with gold accessories.

Lombok boasts an indigenous Sasak culture whose rich tradition has been influenced by its Balinese neighbors and by Buginese and Makassars who settled in the eastern part of Lombok in the 17th century. The Bali influence is seen in the double spiral amulets called ani-ani. But they also retained some archaic forms and styles as seen in the Sasak bangles made from brass or pure gold. Sumbawa manufactured necklaces, armbands, rings, belts and gold hair ornaments with styles and motifs reminiscent of the Makassarese. Small jewelry items like rings and fine chains were customarily stored in finely carved wooden boxes carved with kala (giant head) motifs. Sumba has stark and powerful jewelry that harks back to its Austronesian roots. They fashioned giant gold pectorals (maranga) weighing 1.5 kilo or more. The maranga dates from the 4th-6th CE, migrated from eastern Java and is still a popular ceremonial ornament. It has undergone some style changes but size-wise, the biggest ones are found in Sumba. In Eastern Sumba the imagery became very complex and the mamuli, those ubiquitous oval shapes that are found all over Indonesia, took on a very ornate, baroque style. Other sacred gold ornaments are lamba, the hornshaped forehead crowns worn by Marapu priests. This type of jewelry is believed to possess powerful magic and their use is strictly regulated by taboos. Sumba also produced huge arm and legbands made of bronze or ivory, both etched with geometric images and brass and turtle shell ceremonial combs worn by women with finely wrought motifs usually depicting humans and animals.

Sawu may be a small island but its influence stretches far and wide. The people from Sawu were astute traders and gifted artisans. Due to the arid conditions on their island with limited agricultural opportunities, some of the Sawu made themselves a well-deserved reputation as talented itinerant silver and gold smiths. They were also very good at working with turtle shells and made some beautiful, almost translucent armbands and cuffs. Their designs clearly show a mixture of Austronesian, Malay and European influences. Ancestry veneration is still very strong in Flores. The Manggarai people have singular silver headdresses that imitate swaying palm leaves, a design from the distant past that are still worn in sacred rites and ceremonial dances. Other styles of jewelry were adopted from their contacts with Bugis and Makassars. Gold jewelry is highly prized as family heirlooms and bride price, as symbols of status and wealth. Of particular note are the delicate looking necklaces made of braided gold wire that can reach 10 meters in length. Central Flores has more archaic forms of jewelry due to their relative isolation from outside influences until the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Cowry shells, sometimes cast in gold were traditionally worn by warriors. Typical of this area are gold pectorals and round pendants decorated with imagery such as horses, beautiful beadwork, om’bulu ear ornaments that look like a combination of the archaic mamuli and duri-duri, ritual ear and neck pendants, silver and gold taka (called maranga in Sumba), and large ivory bangles probably made from African elephant tusks which were imported by the Portuguese. From the 16th century Portuguese influence is seen in the form of workmanship: filigreed gold pieces, elegant cut-out patterns, lacy teardrop or leaf-like earrings. At the time the European explorers arrived in Timor, the island already had a thriving goldsmithing craft. Gold was the most important metal used because of its ritual and ceremonial role. The Timorese made beautiful bracelets and other jewelry. Silver, imported by the early colonials was eagerly embraced and solid looking rings, armbands, hairpins and frontal crowns were fashioned. They also liked to use beads, shells and coins to embellish their creations.

The tribes populating the southern arc of Maluku have the most diverse collection of indigenous made jewelry because they were largely spared the influences of outsiders due to limited spice resources and isolation from the main trade routes. Their traditional culture was not endangered and their Austronesian heritage was not lost but thrived. The area was inhabited by fierce warriors and headhunters who practiced ancient fertility rites and ceremonies with offerings and blood sacrifices. Due to its warrior-hunter culture, the sun and moon motifs, potent symbols for hunters and warriors, are popular. Bronze Age jewelry like bracelets and earrings with archaic forms and designs are more readily found there. Of special note are some curious looking ear ornaments resembling Starwars’ robot R2D2 made of silver and gold alloys, a pair of triangular shaped looped earrings called kmwene connected with a string of colorful beads that was worn in back of the neck, pectorals and necklaces with depictions of ancestors and animals. The taka or maranga achieved its most elegant form in southern Maluku with decorations of loops and twisted wire at the edges to make the piece more elegant and whimsical. Many jewelry pieces were locally made but there was also a great abundance of imported jewelry probably amassed by the rich upper classes as symbols of wealth.

Sources: Ethnic Jewelry from Indonesia: Continuity and Evolution by Bruce Carpenter
Photography by Philippe Heurtault
Story by Ines Wynn

Copyright © 2012 Bali Advertiser
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