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The Basics of Heirloom Beads

In Western society, heirlooming is a matter of individual choice. Our heirlooms may be almost anything. Not so everywhere. Among many people, heirlooms are very specific classes of objects, often not owned by their possessor, but held in trust for the family or larger group. Beads are heirloomed in many places, including Asia, Africa and the Americas. Each people have specific rules for heirlooming.

Not all beads are heirloomed.
These opaque red glass barrels are recognized as old beads in Sarawak (East Malaysia, on Borneo), but are not heirloomed. They are called "ghost beads" and are put on stakes in a field to drive away spirits or thrown out a window after a bad dream. Those in the picture are from a 14
th to 16th century site.

I am not sure if these are heirlooms in Sarawak any more. The one on the right is from a 14th - 16th century site.
It must have been an heirloom at one time, because the one on the left is a Venetian imitation, ca.1870.

Rules of heirlooms include whether a collection is open or closed, split or curated (handed down intact). These valuable, tiny (2-3 mm) mutiraja beads from Timor, Indonesia, are the only ones used by the upper class. The collection is closed, but beads may be shifted around, so it can be split or curated.


These beads from the Southern Toraja of Sulawesi, Indonesia are both split (divided up among heirs) and open. Chinese, Venetian, Dutch and Czech beads ranging from the 15th to 17th century can be seen here.

Inheritance rules differ. Sons, only the oldest daughter, all children, the eldest child, all daughters and other combinations are found. Pumtek (buried thunderbolts) of the Chin of Myanmar (Burma) that belong to the father go to the sons and those of the mother to her daughters. At least two generations of imitations of these beads exist.


A hat of heirloom beads. Unlike their neighbors, the Kayan, the Kelabit of Sarawak favor only monochrome beads of shell, stone and glass.

The woman's hat, the Pata, is no longer worn, but still valued.


Heirlooms of the Hills by Pete Francis

Bead Cap 64/88 in the Sarawak Museum Collection by Heidi Munan-Oettli in Sarawak Museum Journal 1983, 32(53):89-96.


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