As children, my younger brothers and sisters and I were bedecked, as is the custom in Polynesia, in flowers. We pinned the creamy pink and yellow blossoms of the plumeria in our hair, tucked them into hatbands and behind our ears, threaded them through buttonholes (should a flower be worn behind the right ear, it signifies that your affections are unclaimed, and we wore our flowers there). We climbed trees in graveyards and waded along banks of streams, picking flowers to string into leis—white or yellow ginger, the faintly green pakalana, the small white buds of ivory jasmine called pikake, the fragrant pua keni keni flower.
My brothers and sisters, however, did not persist with this tradition as did I, wearing flowers deep into womanhood in every conceivable fashion. There was even a period in adolescence, having discovered the gowns of the 19th-century, when I sewed flowers to my clothes (my mother had created a sensation in her own youth when, a newcomer to the Islands, she appeared at a ball in a dense floor-length cape of fresh gardenias). Once I left Polynesia, the contingencies of availability and weather, as well as an increased self-consciousness, resulted, quite wisely, in my abandonment of flowers as adornment.
I discovered instead, another means of display. Once I began my travels, I sought the beads and trinkets and fetish objects of what is called ethnic or tribal culture. Not so very long ago—25 years, perhaps—these things could not be found in shops. They came from smoke-filled huts along the Irrawaddy river, saddlebags reeking of camel in the Gujarat, and the dark souks of the Atlas Mountains. It was a passion that was economically feasible, and that condition was important to me. I had already begun to collect the small and idiosyncratic treasures of the Far East and New Guinea as a girl. My first purchase, acquired with a summer’s allowance, was a pair of bright turquoise-blue Mandarin hairpins made of coral beads, enamel, and kingfisher feathers. After the Second World War and the fall in the late forties of China’s Nationalist party, Hawaii was awash with all kinds of beautiful things for sale—furniture, ceramics, textiles. My father gave me a rope of carved jade balls said to have been looted from a palace, and when my mother died young, I was left her Burmese rubies—all long gone, although I still have my kingfisher pins.
The odd and eccentric pieces of my collection, sometimes of little value, sometimes, although less often, priceless, were found in years of wandering through the world. As my travels grew wider, so did my collection. My interests grew more eccentric—the objects I sought were less practical (as opposed to hairpins made of feathers), which meant that sometimes it was impossible to wear or to use them. Earrings from Benin the size of dinner plates, for example. Anklets from Orissa, ringed with sharp metal spikes. One of my favorite necklaces, a heavy kina breastplate from the Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea, is made from the gold lip shell. Prized as a bride-price, it is so stained with red vegetable dye that a dress or blouse is ruined in the wearing of it. I have had to accept that a wide headband made of tiny overlapping shells stitched together—also a bride-price from New Guinea—is too fragile, too large and heavy to be worn across my forehead, although I have more than once bound it awkwardly to my head and thought about it.
It is also true that there is an ethical consideration in this kind of collecting. It is no triumph to strike a bargain that is unfair, or to yank an ivory bracelet from a village woman’s wrist. As these strange and lovely things grow more rare, the desire for them has grown, as has the price. Many of the objects represent more than mere personal adornment to the owner; they are religious totems, or ancient family treasures, or the literal manifestations of wealth. Is cash money an acceptable substitute even when it is needed? Am I to refuse the seller an amount of money because I cannot bear for her to lose her great-grandmother’s jewelry? These are difficult questions and can only be answered individually. The arcane and traditional means of negotiation, always a matter of subtlety, patience, and humor, are accompanied by numerous cups of mint tea or kava or thick coffee, and sometimes it is impossible to know if one has behaved in a generous and honorable fashion; there are impediments of language and custom, as well as the sometimes voracious middleman. I discovered long ago that I am emotionally incapable of bargaining— I double the asking price and we all come away pleased, although deprived of the drama of negotiation.
When I lived in Calcutta a few years ago, word was spread—without my instigation, or even desire—that a Western woman living near the Kali Temple was interested in Indian village jewelry. Each week, three or four people would waylay me, some of whom had walked from outlying villages to the city to show me their objects. I bought many things—scrolls and pots and puppets and statues of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, and the small metal sculptures known as dhokra. I even began to wear flowers again, wrapping the long strands of jasmine brought to me each morning in my hair and around my wrists. I found, one rainy evening, in the bottom of a seller’s plastic bag, a necklace of gold amulets, or thali, from Tamil Nadu. Known as pudukkottai, it is given to a newly married woman as part of her dowry, tied around the bride’s neck by the groom, the cord knotted three times to symbolize the bride, the husband, and God. I wear the necklace every day.
Of course, not all the pieces were bought in such romantic conditions. Some were found in jewelers’ comfortable shops in Delhi, or once, when I was sitting on the carpeted floor of a merchant’s storeroom in the Rann of Kachchh during the aftershocks of an earthquake. Sometimes they are discovered in the gift shop of a provincial hotel and, one winter, a museum in Fez closing for lack of visitors. Once, in the middle of the night, in Lhasa, a man arrived at the door of my hotel room with a large ceremonial gorget in his hands crafted using coral, turquoise, carnelian, and conch shell. I had not been looking to buy anything, and I do not know how he came to find me—perhaps he had seen me earlier in the day at the market. I bought the necklace and he hurried away, disappearing down the dark, cold corridor, fearful of Chinese spies.
While most of these things are found in unexpected ways—a dusty hotel gift shop, a village stall, a souk—there are a few places to which I always make my way.
Owned by one family for generations, it is filled with the rarest of Indian textiles and a collection of mainly new jewelry in the Moghul style. 14 Sunder Nagar Market; 91-11/2435-8528; bharanys.com
Sunder Nagar Market
A row of shops brimming with ethnic jewelry, sculptures, brass pots and pans, and teas from Assam and Darjeeling. Near Mathura Rd.
One of the best places in the Grand Bazaar for gold and Ottoman pieces. 6 Sandal Bedesten Sokak; 90-212/522-8171
For embroideries, Turkish glass, and old Russian silver. Iç Bedesten, Kapali Carsi; 90-212/522-7549
Also in the Grand Bazaar, and presided over by owner Fuat Kirgiz, who stocks rare stones and more traditional tasseled lariat necklaces. 4–6 Kalpakçilar Cad.; 90-212/522-0326
The Los Angeles Asian & Tribal Arts Show
Produced by industry leaders Caskey & Lees, this fair (this year, November 14–16) is considered the premier showcase of ethnic art, and jewelry is included. Private global specialist Georgia Chrischilles of Brussels displays here. Annual fairs are also held in San Francisco (the next, February 12–15, 2009) and New York (May 13–17, 2009). caskeylees.com
A strong presence at New York’s annual Tribal & Textile Arts Show, with 19th-century bridal jewelry from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan ($500–$10,000) and a 22-karat-gold turquoise and pearl pendant from Saudi Arabia ($6,850). 908-879-8952
Martha Hopkins Struever Gallery
Struever, a former curator, specializes in Native American art and jewelry. By appointment only; 505-983-9515; marthastruever.com
A treasure trove of antique ethnography with a focus on North African jewelry such as 200-year-old amber beads ($3,600) and a necklace of 19th-century trading shells and handspun linen ($1,500). By appointment only; 505-955-1488