Beauty and the Beads

Published June 20, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Jaime Laya


As Netflix addicts know, the Vanderbilts and Astors of New York’s Gilded Age outdid each other with Fifth Avenue mansions, Newport cottages, yachts, and European noblemen for sons-in-law.

Their 19th-century lowland Pinoy equivalents were small fry in comparison but were just as conspicuous in expenditure. They lived in grand bahay-na-bato at town centers—the closer to the church the better—and filled them with costly European mirrors, muebles, chandeliers, and bibelots, if not ancien regime antiques. Doñas wore voluminous silk saya that they didn’t mind dragging on dusty streets (what else would their lavanderas do).

ALL THE SMALL THINGS A Gaddang matron in heirloom bead finery (Facebook, Daryl Dewey)

Conditions were different in the highlands that the Spanish never conquered. The Ifugao, Kalinga, Bontoc, and other Cordillera peoples were in small and isolated villages, lived the ways of their ancestors undiluted by outside influences. They cultivated crops on terraced mountainsides, mined gold, and traded with lowlanders and foreigners from as far away as China and the Middle East.

Social standing and wealth were not proclaimed by mansions (children were sent off to village dormitories when they came of age). Clothing style, color, and design varied with where one was in the social hierarchy and wealth was reckoned on the basis of rice fields; inherited gold bracelets and earrings, gongs, ceramic jars, bowls and plates; and unexpectedly to modern eyes, strings of heirloom beads.

Plastic beads are throwaway objects these days, but stone and plastic beads have been prized ever since humans’ ancestors made them and beautified themselves with them some 100,000 years ago.

ALL THE SMALL THINGS – A necklace of pang-ao beads from Bontoc (Emil Marañon III).

Ancient Filipinos made earthenware beads, but it seems they had been importing beads 500 years before Magellan found his way here. Beads were super expensive luxuries. It takes expertise to drill a tiny hole through the center of a small round stone and the final product passed through numerous middlemen on the way to a Cordillera village from faraway China, Java, India, the Middle East, and Europe.

Cordillerans must have paid for the coveted imports with products of land and forest and with gold and copper. Beads were so costly and that the entire community knew precisely who owned what. Rare beads were given names, just as the Kohinoor and Hope diamonds were. Families relinquished them only when in dire need and where possible only to relatives.

Traditionally, the value of a bead was expressed as equivalent to a number of carabaos, pigs, or chickens. Until the 1970s in the isolated barrio of Lubo in Tanudan, Kalinga-Apayao, a heavy gold bracelet was equivalent to up to 100 carabaos and a simple necklace, 40 carabaos. A change in the ownership of a gold bracelet would be accompanied by rituals and a feast for the community at different stages of the transaction.

Among the Kalinga, the most precious jewelry are gold bracelets and earrings. Next in value are bead ensembles consisting of natural stones (agate, carnelian, quartz, onyx, jasper) in certain shapes, sizes and coloring, strung with less valuable glass beads. Considered most valuable are barrel-shaped agate beads with two distinct areas of solid color. Ensembles also have glass beads with a mainly blue and white chevron design apparently imported from Venice starting in the 1500s. Also treasured, particularly by the Ifugao, are cylindrical pang-ao beads, glass beads with gold foil inclusions that came from Venice, Java, and/or India. Carnelians were from South Africa and in the 19th century, agate beads were imported from Austria’s Oberstein bead factory.

ALL THE SMALL THINGS – A Kalinga pilakid necklace worn diagonally across the chest (Gallery Deus)

A wealthy Kalinga matron would be considered properly dressed at an important occasion only if she had a headband of one or two bead strands; earrings of gold with bead attachments; a necklace of three or more strands; a single strand choker; a longer double strand of carnelian or jasper beads; an asymmetrical double strand necklace reaching the waistline; a long necklace reaching the waistline; a long ensemble worn bandolier style diagonally across the chest from one shoulder to the opposite waistline; and strings of tiny beads covering both forearms.

Rituals with full jewelry display were held in celebration of milestones of the Kalinga life cycle: birth, child betrothal, passage to manhood, marriage, parental acceptance of a daughter-in-law, sickness, avenging a death or serious injury, and death.

The ostentatious display of beads, gold bracelets and earrings, the playing of gongs are significant parts of village celebrations and festivities accompanying a peace pact.  The display of heirloom wealth is de rigueur on those occasions, particularly when another village is involved. The display is an effective means of demonstrating village wealth and importance.

Today’s Pinoy Vanderbilts and Astors keep their addresses secret (kidnappers, you know) but billionaire gents impress each other with Ferraris, helicopters, and private jets. Their wives and/or number twos do the same among themselves with Birkin bags, diamonds, and, on grand charity balls and weddings, gowns by the likes of Dior and Givenchy.

Human nature is the same everywhere and any time.

Notes: (a) This article is based on Benjamin Abellera, The Heirloom Beads of Lubo, Kalinga-Apayao (unpublished M.A. Anthropology thesis, University of the Philippines) and on correspondence with U.P. professor Florencio Quintos and lawyer Emil Marañon III, both authorities on the culture and arts of Philippine cultural communities; and (b) Beads are defined as small objects of various shapes made of stone, shell, glass, ceramic, wood, or other material with a small hole intended for stringing or threading for personal adornment or other decorative purpose. 

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