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January 8, 2014

Bead Collecting

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – I had never given beads much thought. They were the round orbs I strung and wore and gave to lovers during my hippie days. I also remember somebody bought Manhattan Island from the Native Americans (they were Indians back then) for a hand full. Do they still teach that?


I watched over the years, as I taught school, beads came and went as fashion accessories. I remember small bracelets around the wrists of some of my female students. I asked them what it meant and they said it had something to do with friendship. I let it go at that.


When I moved here to Kuching, I noticed beads were back in my life. They were everywhere, decorating traditional clothes worn for festive occasions. Most shops had intricate pieces crafted by the nimble fingers of ladies who had both time and creativity to make wondrous works of art. I only gave them a passing glance.


Antiques have always been a passion of mine. I owned a successful on-line bookstore dealing in old books pertaining to Maryland. I scoured auctions throughout Western Maryland seeking old books and I made quite a side business out of my efforts. Growing up, my uncle refurbished old furniture.


In Borneo, I began collecting old pieces of implements used by the local natives. I purchased three parangs (machetes used to slash through the jungle) with decorative sheaths. They were adorned because they were used to remove heads, a local collecting hobby around here for many years. People wanted to sell them because they were used during the uprising in Sambas (South Borneo) against the Madura people in 1999-2000 troubles. Something to do with bad spirits.


I proudly showed my acquisition to friends. One of the local British ladies, who had been here forever, said “WOW! Look at those old beads!” I decided to have a closer look. To me they looked like any other beads and I then asked her for more information.


As all of us know, when you ask and are enthusiast about their hobby, one must be prepared for a long recitation about the subject. One can only nod and smile as the person goes on and on about something you have absolutely no interest. People usually try to extricate themselves from the individual, one by one, until the person is left talking to an imaginary audience, excitement building to how he acquired the king of his collection.


My mind wandered and dulled with boredom until I absent mindedly asked how much she thought people would pay for three light blue beads attached to the sheaths. THAT MUCH? was my reply. I became an instant bead collector.


Trade beads were used here much like they were in America. Westerners purchased goods from the locals as a form of currency while the locals gave them to their wives for decoration. There was probably hilarity on both sides as the conversation probably went something like “I will trade 10 beads for a 100 coconuts.” Both sides probably had plenty of items they each thought had little value. A fair exchange.


Collecting beads can be daunting. There is a long learning curve and – like in most collections – the hunt is more fun than the acquisition. The ones with value are usually strung together with ones of little value. Therefore, one must examine each bead in a string of hundreds. The ones that are dull in color have the most value. Sometimes they are strung together with small bones, seeds and other forest products which just add to the interest. Fanatical bead collectors can tell at a glance which ones are rare, but we are not at that stage yet.


We have beads from ancient Venice and many from China, India and Arabia. Each old bead has a story and one wonders how it arrived here in Borneo. We do not unstring them but keep them together as the artist had intended.


We also have extremely large beads strung together which humans could not possibly wear. Some people told us they were used to decorate cows. There are not many Indians here in Borneo and I have never seen a water buffalo, chest deep in mud, adorned in beads. We will do more research on those.


My wife has taken charge of the beads and we have ordered books on trying to identify and determine their origin. I watch in passing interest, but pay attention when she gives a yelp at a particular rare find while looking through the strings much like one does a rosary.


I like this relatively new hobby as it adds to our Borneo collection and has captured my wife’s interest. It just expands our life in this wild and wondrous world of Southeast Asia.


…Life is good. . . . .


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