Most jewelry made from precious metals – silver or gold – was considered auspicious and luck bringing in Tibet. In Southern Tibet it was considered bad luck for a woman to go without her hair ornaments. Up until 1950s this led to women sleeping in their enormous headdresses.
There were also a few items that were worn specifically to guard against spiritual evil such as the large ivory rings worn on the thumb of the left hand by men to protect them against witches. Tibetan belief also was that without pierced ears one risked being reborn as a donkey. This led men who normally wore one earring in the left ear to also wear a small stud of turquoise in the right.
For men jewelry and ornament were statements of their position in society. Together with his gun, sword and saddle, a man’s amulet box gau was a status symbol. If he was an official in the government he was required to wear the indicators of his rank. What was worn depended on which of the 8 levels of government officialdom he belonged to. One of the most visible insignia of office was the thin pencil-shaped earring and the stone-set, gold hat finial called shalok. The particular stone worn on the top of a hat or hat finial showed the wearer’s rank. The Prime Minister, a firs-rank official, wore a pearl at the top of his finial, the four cabinet ministers, of second rank, wore rubies while officials of the third rank, who were the heads of government departments, wore coral hat ornaments. An officials wife too had to be provided with jewelry appropriate to her husband’s rank.
officials earring, 19c, Victoria and Albert Museum
officials in the festive costumes, 1937
Down to the 1950s men and women of the ruling class were obliged to wear full sets of appropriate ornaments for important occasions and a woman could be fined for not wearing her headdress during the New Year ceremonies.
Every self-respecting Tibetan woman had to have at least minimum set of jewelries. These consisted of the horned coral- and pearl-covered headdress, the long lotus-bug-shaped earrings, amulet box and the string of pearls. The construction of the headdress depended on the area of living.
The most elaborate and expensive type of headdress wore rich women of southern Tibet. The arched are was completely filled with multiple strings of freshwater pearls and the higher the headdress the more fashionable it was considered. It required stabilizing with hooks and cords at the back. Hair was braided into many tiny plaits and hung down from where it was fixed at each side of the arch. The poor women had only a few stones of coral or turquoise to decorate the headdress and the arched area stayed open.
A woman’s jewelry was often her major independent financial holding, most of which came to her at marriage. In eastern and western Tibet much of this wealth was worn in the form of ornaments or stones attached to felt that extended down a woman’s back.
Until the 1950s such ornaments were everyday wear, worn whilst carrying out daily tasks such as miking or cooking food. In times of crisis the gold, silver or stones could be sold.
Nowadays such costumes and jewelry sets are worn only on festive occasions. The amount of ornaments worn on daily basis has reduced. The sizes of jewelry have also changed noticeably. What is worn today is a much scaled-down and much poorer version of what was worn before 1959.