Mar 2015 - A Nonya and Her Jewelry - Lily Yew

We were fortunate to be able to listen to the very informative talk about the place of traditional jewelry in the culture of the Penang nyonya community.


Personal jewelry is part of the traditional dress for a Penang nyonya girl. Small items are bestowed in infancy and girls wear bangles or chains as part of their daily costume, and in the past even to school on special occasions. Babies are given chains, bangles, anklets and tiny rings. Amulets and talisman, such as elephant hair encased on a child’s bangle, are protection against evil spirits. Children are brought up to wear items such as bangles and chains as part of their daily wear. Ear piercing is done early. The speaker told us that at Chinese New Year she went to school wearing jewelry and always wears jewelry of some sort.


The nyonyas of Penang descended from Hokkien immigrants from South China. They were poor but worked hard and developed and invested in the rubber and tin industries and also ran gambling and opium smoking dens. They invested their money in industry and property and bought jewelry. Jewels were worn for important occasions such as weddings and Chinese New Year, and less elaborate jewelry was worn on a daily basis. On the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the items were washed and put in the sun to absorb chi. The nyonya’s jewelry usually consisted of a wide selection of earrings, kerosangs (three–piece brooches for closing the front of kebayas), rings, bangles for arms and legs, bracelets, necklaces and hairpins.


Sometimes items were borrowed from relatives for a special occasion. Photographs of the occasion were taken and were expensive. During a period of mourning only silver and pearls would be worn for the first year. Blue sapphires were added in the second year and jades and emeralds in the third year. Some times jewels were specially made for the mourning period.


For joyful occasions gold, diamonds and rubies were used. Brides were photographed with jewelry before leaving their home.


The craftsmen were usually Ceylonese and their workmanship showed a strong Victorian influence. Later craftsmen came from China, and goldsmiths would be commissioned by rich clients. Motifs used were auspicious symbols of varied ethnic origin e.g. tulips, birds, the eight immortals, insects such as dragonflies. For special occasions Penang nyonyas styled their hair in top- knots with small flowers and many decorative pins, usually sets of five. They look like coronets and were probably of Thai or Burmese influence. There were often sets of earrings and pendants using a filigree design. Kerosang th’oe sets were for the vintage long kebayas. They consisted of one large peach-shaped brooch and two small circular brooches. Kerosangs with three identical brooches and connecting chains are for the shorter nyonya kebayas. Some of the jewelry is wearable today as earrings, pendants or traditional kerosang sets.


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