Thursday, August 13, 2009
Bead adventures in Thailand (4) - the enormous ivory beads
Ah! Back in Bangkok! I’ve been visiting this city for thirty years and I’m still finding new places to go and things to do. In part, this is because Bangkok is changing constantly – old roads and houses are replaced by new expressways, hotels and shopping malls. In all this change, one constant is the Chao Praya river, which winds its way through Bangkok just as the Thames runs through London, the Seine through Paris and the Mississippi through New Orleans. Another – related - constant is the Grand Palace (see picture), which stands resplendent on the bank of the Chao Pray and is almost, in my view, a Wonder of the World.
Bangkok is a prime venue for beaders for many reasons. First, the Grand Palace and its Buddhist temples are sources of endless inspiration. There are so many temples that you’re never more than a few blocks away from one. The colours and patterns of the ceramic and tile work are fabulous. I have taken lots of photos for future reference - here is just one of the close-ups I took of the tile work on one of the demons at the Grand Palace. It's alive with colour and pattern to inspire beaders.
Bangkok’s thousands of antique shops are also inspiring. Much of the ‘antique’ jewellery is, in fact, imported from Tibet, Nepal and Afghanistan and its patina of age is probably just dust from the dirt roads of central Asia! However, there are museum quality pieces on sale for the wealthy bead collector in many shops. In The River City Plaza shopping centre I found over half a dozen shops with extraordinary antique beads from several countries in South East Asia.
It was in one of the River City Plaza shops (Beyond the Masks) I met the enormous ivory beads. There were dozens of strings of antique beads of all shapes, sizes and materials. I became particularly mesmerised by a necklace of enormous antique ivory beads, returning to look at it several times. The central bead was nearly as a large as a tennis ball with the smallest beads close to the size of golf balls. It was a graduated, single strand necklace and each bead was nestled between two lovely old silver bead caps. I was fascinated by the size of the beads and the beauty of their ivory patina, but saddened at the thought that an elephant probably perished to create the ivory beads. The elephant would not have been killed to specifically make the beads as ivory beads were made generally from off-cuts and pieces discarded from making larger objects, but it would have non-the-less probably perished for its ivory. Once China’s elephants became extinct around 500 AD ivory from through South East Asia and parts of Africa was traded for carving in China and Japan. Were these beads from an elephant from Borneo or Somalia? How old was it when it perished? Who first owned these beads? Why were they made? Where had they started their journey as beads just how ethically had they journeyed to Bangkok? Was the necklace sold because a family somewhere, some time ago, needed the money for survival? Had it been a dowry piece or a precious family heirloom? Was its owner paid a fair price paid for the necklace? Did they part with it willingly, or was it pillaged? What would the ethics of buying such a necklace be? On sale for $AUS 9,000 I wouldn’t have to debate the ethics of the purchase personally but I was haunted by the possibilities of the necklace’s infamous past. Unfortunately, the young shop assistant had little idea of its lineage and so I am still left to wonder. The shop forbade photographs so it is just my memory and my imagination I take away from my encounter with the enormous ivory beads. I am tempted to visit it one more time in the hope of learning more.
More on Bangkok’s attractions for me as a beader tomorrow.