Our bodies are moving canvases; the ornaments we wear are seen from different angles, in bright sun and evening shadows, at simple gatherings and fancy events. While jewelry often proclaims the wealth and status of its owner, each object can also tell other stories. These are stories of the cycle of life—engagements, weddings, births, deaths. Jewelry can function as a talisman, encapsulating our wishes for protection or hopes for prosperity.
On view in gallery 11 of the Southeast Asian galleries (October 20, 2012–August 3, 2014) is a remarkable selection of jewelry from the James and Elaine Connell Collection. After donating their collection of Thai ceramics to the Asian Art Museum in 1989, the Connells began collecting jewelry, selecting rare objects from a wide range of Southeast Asian cultures. The forty-one pieces of jewelry on display, which were recently donated to the museum, come primarily from Indonesia but also include examples from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Burma.
Ancient Indian texts describe a region called Suvarnadvipa (“Golden Island” or “Golden Peninsula”), a term thought by many to designate the Indonesian islands, particularly Sumatra. Sumatra is rich in gold deposits that were exported throughout the archipelago. Gold has long been treasured for its luster, malleability, and resistance to corrosion. In many of these island cultures, gold was associated with the sun and with the ancestral deities.
While many of the objects on display are gold, other materials were also used for ornamentation. Bells, beads, bones, beaks—Southeast Asians made jewelry from a vast array of materials, both imported and local. Traditions of jewelry making are especially rich among the peoples of Mindanao Island and the Luzon highlands of the Philippines and a case in the display exhibits objects from these regions.
The jewelry of neighboring regions (or even within an area) can be dramatically varied, including both strikingly bold forms and objects finely crafted with intricate detail. Certain shapes, like the omega-shape Ω, spread across thousands of miles and are linked to notions of female fertility. Other forms, like the huge plate-shaped gold chest ornaments called piring mas (gold plates), are found only in a small number of eastern Indonesian islands.
Most of the objects on display most likely date from 1800-1900, but it is possible some are much older. Jewelry of these types is no longer made in many of these regions, although heirlooms are still kept, treasured, and worn on ceremonial occasions. As a group these objects illustrate the great diversity of techniques, materials and functions of jewelry made by some of the many distinct cultural societies of Southeast Asia.