VARIETY OF VINTAGE CHINESE BANGLES of silver/enamel; two silver; strung beads of coral, turquoise and silver jump rings on metal base; cloisonné; three of openwork enamel and one of enamel and lacquer. Courtesy of J. Eng Wrinkle.

Ethnographic Jewelry


Vintage Chinese Bangles



Recently I had the rare opportunity to examine vintage Chinese jewelry, in the form of bangles and bracelets dating from the Qing to the Republic of China, that had been warehoused by Leekan Designs, some for decades. I had studied and photographed some of this same material in 1983-84; similar jewelry from the Overseas Trading Company inventory was also examined and described a few years later (Liu 1992).

Like all vintage ethnographic jewelry, as well as ancient jewelry, the individual craftspeople who made them are unknown but often the quality of their work equals or surpasses that of well-known contemporary craftspeople. Coming from China, with its large populations and frequent political upheavals that result in large-scale disposals of items no longer deemed politically correct, the casual observer might get the impression that when such a volume of artifacts reaches the market, they cannot possibly be of good workmanship or materials. Such is certainly not the case, as evident from many of the examples shown in this article.

RATTAN BANGLES WITH ENAMELED SILVER TUBING, latter with auspicious characters or floral motifs. Such bangles range from 7.3 to 9.0 centimeter diameters. There is often a carved knot on the rattan portion, usually doubled.

Most of the vintage jewelry in this article has been termed folk jewelry, not seriously studied but illustrated in a number of publications, as seen in the citations. Mostly used by Han Chinese, minorities also wore them, like the Ami of Taiwan (Liu 1983: fig. 19). Some rattan and silver bangles have been identified as Mongolian, which I believe is incorrect (van Cutsem 2003). These arm ornaments were most likely worn by older women, although smaller examples perhaps indicate that younger females also used them, although we really know little about their use. I have no photographs but do remember my paternal grandmother and maybe my governess wearing jade bangles.

My recent interest in heatbending bamboo into jewelry lead me to try and find examples of this organic material being used for adornment in China, as well as rattan bangles, which were also bent by heat into jewelry (Liu 2012). Even though I have studied Chinese bangles and bracelets for many years, I was amazed at the richness and variety of materials and techniques used for their manufacture, once I had gathered all my images. This realization came from the serendipity of seeing Leekan’s collection, followed soon by that of Jacque Eng Wrinkle’s personal collection, as well as those from the Ornament photographic archives, recording what I had seen over the past three decades or more. While I no longer have access to any of the ornaments shown here except the glass bangle, I did study them carefully whenever I photographed them. Allowing for wear, the careful observer can see that all the metalwork is well-executed, even though they are the output of craftsmen from typically simple and crudely equipped small workshops. But the quality of the die work is excellent, whether struck per the methods in Najdowski (2011) or cut out individually afterwards, like the bat or fu symbols on many bangles. Two part tin molds cast from repoussed patterns were shown in her article. The silver sheet metal would have had to have been well annealed, inserted between the tin molds and struck, or carefully pressed to obtain such well-formed and distinct impressions. It is not known what type of molds or dies are used to fabricate the decorated silver tubes and elements on rattan bracelets, although Hang (2005) does mention a press mold in the manufacture of silver and rattan bangles. True repoussé has been used in making Chinese metal toggles (Cammann 1962), although no tool marks indicative of chasing are discernible on the metalwork of the bracelets or bangles used for this article.

Rattan is the most common bangle material, followed by silver, although bone or ivory, tortoise shell, lacquer, bamboo, wood (?), coral, jade, glass and metal combined with the previous substances have been used. Rattan is a climbing palm and widely used, especially in Southeast Asia. Rattan bangles combined with gold are in the collections of the Forbidden City (Hang 2005). Techniques observed in the sample studied include heatbending, carving, lacquer-work and kiln-working of glass but the majority feature metalworking methods: casting, repoussé, die-striking or press-molding, fabrication, cloisonné, enameling, wireworking, and stringing of beads.

VINTAGE RATTAN BANGLES, all of doubled rattan canes, with metal elements, some with auspicious symbols like bats and butterflies.

Although not illustrated in this article, some of the designs or motifs used on vintage bangles or bracelets date back to the Han Dynasty, when a molded glass bracelet carried the theme of opposing dragons with a pearl in their mouths (Liu 1975: 12.). In bangles, the pearl is represented as a sphere, usually in metal but lacking the stylized flames seen in more elaborate jewelry or textiles. Three complex bangles shown in Liu (1992) have dragon terminals and two are holding a pearl between them, a Qing interpretation of the dragon and pearl motif from the Han glass example. Besides the protective quality of the materials and the auspicious symbols used to decorate these arm ornaments, they are also valued for the pleasant jangling sound made when several are worn together. Thus these are also called rattan ringing bracelets.






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