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Mongolian Jewelry

Page history last edited by dmhale@u.washington.edu 11 years, 1 month ago

Return to Jewelry 

Today almost half of the Mongolian population is farmers or herders.  Herders raise cattle in the traditional nomadic lifestyle, living in circular homes, called gers, with folding wooden walls that can be disassembled and moved when needed.

Gers in Mongolia


For nomadic people of Mongolia, jewelry takes on much greater meaning than aesthetic and taste alone. Certain jewels and amulets are worn for spiritual protection.  These powers were so important that no nomad from Mongolia would begin a journey without at least a bead (Napoli 22). Certain stones were believed to have the power to cure physical illness. Coral, for example, is believed to have magical powers and was used in certain shamanistic rituals.


Jewelry is indicator of social rank, marital status, and personal wealth. The visual signs, the symbols, shapes, and materials of Mongolian jewelry reveal the identity of the wearer. Jewelry becomes a complex language, speaking in different ways in different contexts. Jewels are also a symbol of the cultural identity of each ethnic group. The magnificent headdresses of the married Khalkha women represent status, but also embody Mongolian religion and origin stories.


Because the Mongolian dress does not have pockets, these accessories were worn on the nomad’s belt rather than packed away. According to Cristina Del Mare, “Snuff bottles, steels, knives, chopsticks, tweezers, nail clips, and needle boxes are indications of social status and wealth” (32 Napoli). Therefore they are as ornate and beautiful as the earrings and amulets.



Belt with Pouch and Cutlery Set


The role that jewelry plays in the ritual of marriage is one clear example of the symbolic communication.  At around age seven, a young boy brings his intended a pair of silver earrings.  A Mongolian girl has already had her ears pierced at a very young age so that she can wear the earrings immediately.  If she accepts the gift, she is giving a symbolic promise to a later official betrothal.  Married women wear much heavier, more elaborate ear-ornaments.  The size and weight of these earrings has increased beyond what a pierced ear lobe can hold.  Suike style earrings attach with rings that go over the ear or attach to the hair and headdress.  



Suike Earrings


Please enjoy this youtube video showing many styles of Mongolian traditional clothing.   At 1:22-1:34, please note the elaborate Khalkha headdress. Theories about the origin of this form range from a visual connection with sheep horns to the wings of the bird king Garuda.    





JUST FOR FUN... Here's a nice video showing how the Mongolians make the felt that they use to insulate their homes.


Comments (7)

Melissa GRan said

at 10:33 am on May 22, 2009

I like this idea that to the nomadic Mongolians, jewelry is not only earrings or necklaces, but the decoration of every day things. I wonder why their dress has no pockets? But the idea to decorate cutlery or tweezers as a mark of wealth, says a lot about their values as a nomadic people. Its more about the functional and pragmatic beauty, then excessive or impractical decoration.

Sara Hughes said

at 8:04 pm on May 31, 2009

The role that nomadic lifestyle plays in the adornment of Mongolian nomads is so interesting! Not only does the lifestyle shape what sort of adornment one wears, which in this case includes utensils that we might find on swiss army knives (although much more elaborate), but the lack of a home or permanent village affects the impression that people have of each other. Rather than showing your wealth or identity through your home and your furnishings, these things must be identified on your person. This reminded me of the Wodaabe that we studied the first week of class; their nomadic lifestyle was a partial cause of the extreme forms of cosmetics and jewelry because it would allow others to see wealth and beauty on one's own person, and from a distance as well.

Jasmine Ines said

at 4:43 pm on Jun 1, 2009

I thought the idea behind making their everyday objects and utensils into jewelry was very appropriate for a nomadic society. Their choice of stones such as coral and turquoise was interesting because I feel there were other more visually pleasing gems they could have imported instead. The marriage headdress is the weirdest thing to me because it seems like it would be just a hassle carrying that around or wearing it when you move around so much. I wonder if all married woman have either own headdress or if it's passed down. Perhaps I'm just culturally insensitive to this idea, but I don't think I would want to keep mine after my wedding ceremony.

Steve Beckham said

at 10:22 pm on Jun 2, 2009

This was fascinating, particularly the information on the snuff bottles. The tradition of exchanging snuff bottles as a quick assessment sort of introduction is still throwing me off a bit. I thought it was sort of metaphoric of how an individual's identity can be bottled up, if you will, not necessarily worn. I think of it like personal adornment in a home, when you walk into a person's house, to a degree you are experiencing a form of personal adornment. The snuff bottles were almost like carrying that all encompassing, home/personal adornment with you, analogous to being nomadic maybe? Great presentation.

dmhale@u.washington.edu said

at 10:22 am on Jun 3, 2009

Jasmine : "Their choice of stones such as coral and turquoise was interesting because I feel there were other more visually pleasing gems they could have imported instead." I completely forgot to mention during my presentation that certain stones, especially coral, were believed to have healing and/or magical powers. This was a huge reason for their selection. Really, the idea that a nomad would value something for its imported value was a little bit my own speculation.

Steve: I came to the conclusion that snuff bottles could be considered adornment after the research I did, but by all means you could certainly consider them otherwise! :) I was just trying to think about objects/adornment in new ways in relation to a completely different culture's lifestyle and rationality.

I know that the headdresses confused a lot of people, and they could have taken up an entire presentation on their own.

dmhale@u.washington.edu said

at 10:22 am on Jun 3, 2009

p.s. thanks everybody for the great comments!

Mark Anthony said

at 10:52 am on Jun 3, 2009

It's interesting that you note that some character hairstyles from Star Wars lifted from Mongolian hairstyles--and the irony is what results in a role reversal; one can see it in either a historical or a media cultural perspective. But on another note, there is a juxtaposition in the intricate detail and finely crafted jewelry to the simple, progressive and always-moving lifestyle of the Mongolians.

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