(Paternal grandparents on their wedding day)
This fabulous article was written by my auntie Lily Yew, an expert on kebayas. (www.kebayas.com)
A nyonya and her jewellery are never apart. Babies are bestowed small pretty pieces as early as the first month (mua go’oik). These gifts include chains, pendants, bangles, anklets and even child size rings. Those who believe in keeping the child protected from evil spirits, have small charms/amulets and talismans put in special casings.
A little nyonya is always decked up on special occasions and on a daily basis, at least a bangle and a chain. Growing up thus, a nyonya learns to appreciate her jewellery. A mother will make sure her daughters’ ears are pierced at a tender age. A bride will leave her maternal home decked to the ninth. It’s the heirloom her parents present her and also as an insurance against hard times. She develops her fondness for beautiful jewellery from a young age.
As the families became more affluent, nyonyas of yesteryears added more to their collection. Many a nyonya have saved their families from financial ruin by selling off their accumulated treasures. Their display of opulence was not just a statement of wealth but also spoke volumes of their shrewdness and austerity. In Penang nyonya society, it wasn’t considered ostentatious to flaunt your precious jewellery.
(Maternal grandmother(seated centre surrounded by her daughters) wearing her kerosang bintang)
Matriarchs of days gone by wore special hairpins in sets of five or seven to keep their chignons in place. The richer ladies had diamond encrusted sets. For everyday use, they may have a set with just elaborate gold designs. Their less fortunate cousins would have gilt silver hairpins instead.
Many early nyonya accessories were crafted with intans, rough-cut diamonds from Banjamasin, Kalimantan. They were mostly in a smoky hue. There were also colourless intans from India. It was much later that berlian (faceted diamonds) came from Europe. Batawi suan was old-cut diamond sourced from Batavia, Dutch colonial Jakarta. With the advent of new technology and diamond faceting, vintage intan jewellery is now a rarity and much sought after.
Silver and pearls were reserved for when there was a death in the family, attending wakes and funerals. As the mourning period could be as long as 3 years, blue sapphires could be used for the second year with jades and emeralds, for the third. Gold and cabochon rubies from Burma were for joyous celebrations.
Early craftsmen of nyonya jewellery were mostly Ceylonese, hence the strong Victorian influence in design as both the Straits Settlement states and Ceylon(Sri Lanka) were under British colonial rule. There were also Chinese goldsmiths who were commissioned by their rich clients to make special ornaments which became family heirlooms. As there was no quality control then, purity of gold ranged mostly from 9k to 18k. Gold coins, mainly the English sterling and US Dollar were also used as parts of nyonya jewellery. Some were incorporated into pendants, kerosangs and belts.
(Paternal great grandmother with kerosang th’oe)
To complement her kebaya panjang, matriarchs wore “kerosang th’oe”. Normally a set of 3 brooches, it was rare to find sets of 5. The top most piece was shaped like a peach (th’oe is Hokkien for peach). Peaches are symbols for longevity. The lower brooches were less elaborate round pins. These sets were also called ibu dan anak (mother and child). There were some others shaped like stars, hence called bintang which had connecting pairs of chains. Later when the shorter version nyonya kebaya became fashionable, kerosangs became less ornate. 3 identical brooches with connecting chains held the lapels of the kebayas together. Kerosangs are unique to the nyonyas and some of the exquisite designs include dragonflies, butterflies, deer, snowflakes, starfishes, ribbons, flowers, foliage and paddy stalks.
Elder nyonyas wore short blouses with detachable gold buttons at home. Their sarongs were wrapped the traditional way, held up with silver belts. The rich had belts of gold but the Thai nyonyas preferred suasa (9k gold). As suasa is an alloy of more copper than gold, sometimes called rose gold, it is worn by the superstitious as a protection from evil charms.
An item that is no longer in use is the gelang kaki. Probably of Indian influence, these were like bangles but for the ankles. Nyonyas did not wear flexible chain anklets with bells, only their children; it was considered a sign of the ladies in the world’s oldest profession!
Nyonyas wore bangles, whether simple gold bands or ornately crafted with precious stones. Bracelets were also fashionable. The gem stone of choice for nyonyas was diamond. Families bought them in large quantities. The Ceylonese jewellers were then commissioned to come up with new designs for them. Everything was handcrafted in their workshops but the final setting of the stones was usually done in the owner’s home, under the watchful eyes of the matriarch to ensure that good qualities stones were not switched for inferior ones.
Brides were usually photographed covered in jewellery. Some were actually loaned by relatives and friends for the occasion, She wore rings on all her fingers. One trendy ring motif was the circular design of a single middle stone surrounded by 8 others. To the Hokkiens, the pronunciation of the digit 9 sounds like the word “complete” and that is very auspicious. Other ring patterns were called kana for olive-shape and “aeroplane”.
Besides ear studs, a unique nyonya earring design is called hong boey (phoenix tail in Hokkien). It is an upward paisley design fashioned like the tail of the mystical phoenix. In Chinese mythology, the phoenix is symbolic of the female with the dragon for the male. Drop earrings were also very fashionable especially for the young nyonyas. The rich later had gorgeous chandelier ear rings that hung to the shoulders. Many were Victorian in influence with matching necklaces. By that time many young nyonyas had taken to wearing the cheongsam and Western frocks.
Chains with pendants became popular when necks and a little cleavage were exposed with nyonya kebayas. Pendant designs include flower baskets, crowns, birds, bees, grapes and mangoes. Elaborate necklaces were also fashionable for grand occasions. When ladies wore kebaya panjang, their magnificent kerosang th’oe and showy hairpins for their chignons were the pieces of resistance. Clever craftsmanship allowed for these grand pieces to have interchangeable parts and even some conversion into smaller pieces of jewellery. It was also common for earring sets to be convertible, either to be worn as ear studs with accessories that allowed conversion into dangling earrings or even rings.
Some motifs of old nyonya jewellery were typically of Chinese influence as traditions and culture dictated certain auspicious symbols of significance. Headdresses of brides incorporated figurines of the 8 immortals in the Chinese legend. The bat and deer are symbols of longevity while others have auspicious Buddhist symbols.
Flora and fauna featured prominently. There were peonies and chrysanthemums but bunga tanjong was a favourite of local influence. Another popular subject was the Dutch tulip. Even motifs influenced by spices like cloves and star anise were inspirations to these artisans. Designs of birds like the peacock, phoenix, sparrow and the rooster were cleverly handcrafted into pendants, necklaces, kerosangs and earrings. Many examples incorporated insects. The influences therefore were from China, India & Ceylon, Europe and also local.
(Mother with chandelier earrings, chain and pendant)
The babas too had their share of accessories. The groom wore a diamond bintang on his jacket lapel instead of a flower bud in the buttonhole. He also would have a gold diamond encrusted chain for his pocket watch connected to his waist coat of his Western suit The detachable buttons for his daily Chinese closed-coat would also be in gold.
Styles of antique nyonya jewellery deferred in the different Straits Settlement states and in parts of Indonesia. The large ornate belt buckles/pending was of Malay and Indian influence and popular in the southern states and Indonesia only. Likewise, hairpins were more elaborate in the north, an influence of its Thai neighbours. Accessories like Victorian silver mesh purses were not as popular in Penang. These tiny nyonya silver purses were hung more as a fashion statement from the sarong belts to serve any useful purpose. There wasn’t a need for purses as unmarried Penang kebaya-clad nyonya maidens then didn’t leave home without a chaperon and while the men frequented the cabarets and partied, their partners were cabaret and joget girls, not nyonyas. With Western influence of dressing later, those dainty mesh purses went out of style.
To day, vintage nyonya jewellery is rare. When times were bad and fashion styles changed, some heirlooms were disposed off or melted down. The craftsmanship is now lost and old style intans are no longer available. For those lucky enough to have inherited family heirlooms or had the opportunity to purchase estate jewellery, it is a precious heritage worth treasuring. It is relevant today as wearable collectibles as the nyonya community struggles to keep its rich culture and traditions alive. If not for anything else, gold value will always appreciate and fine jewellery craftsmanship is a work of art and beauty… a joy forever, priceless!