New acquisitions of botanical jewellery in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection illustrate how plant parts can be transformed into fascinating cultural objects.
Kew’s Economic Botany Collection (EBC) contains many examples of plants in jewellery around the world and illustrates the cultural value of such items. Many are intended solely for decorative purposes, others are prayer beads, some are used to express or emulate status or wealth, or to promote good luck, health or healing. Recent acquisitions often also reflect the cultural transition from traditional local use to a wider tourist or development trade.
My first task as the Kew EBC assistant was to curate recent acquisitions of botanical jewellery: necklaces, pendants, bracelets, hair slides, earrings, brooches, rings, belts and anklets. These included a large donation from Ruth Smith from the USA, amassed during her global travels, augmented with gifts from friends and family. Also significant were items purchased from the leader of the Sateré-Mawé tribe from Para, Amazonian Brazil on a visit to Kew.
Plant parts used in botanical jewellery
A major priority for curation is the identification of the botanical components of each piece, which usually include up to around four different beads, but can be many more. Identification is based on understanding the plant parts used. Most are whole seeds (but there are also seeds with arils, seed scales, de-haired seeds, and seeds with the testa (seed coat) wholly or partially removed), also fruits (compound fruits, fruit capsules, pods, de-winged fruits, stones of fruits, and caps and cupules from fruits) as well as leaves, stems, wood, bark, thorns, tubers, rhizomes, roots, flower buds and resin. There are even beads made from ground up seeds. In Mali, women pound the fragrant seed of Detarium microcarpum (EBC 78916) to powder. After sifting it they add hot water and boil the mixture until thickened. The resultant paste is rolled into small round beads, punctured and left in the sun to dry. A rope of approximately 400 of these yellowish-tan beads is then strung together. Ten strands are tied together to form a belt that married women wear - usually under their clothes.
Clues and aids to identification
Identification of botanical beads draws on knowledge and expertise in taxonomy, regional floristics, geography, economic botany and culture. Ultimately, the plant parts are compared to examples within physical (or digital) reference collections, descriptions in monographs and floras and in the increasingly available specialist seed identification manuals and digital seed atlases. Arriving at candidate species for comparison can be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack, but shortcuts to identification are possible. Luckily, in an institution such as Kew, plant family specialists and regional experts are invaluable consultants in the identification process. The World Checklist of Selected Plant Names is also helpful in providing a quick check of likely accuracy of proposed identifications with respect to geographical origins of items. Additionally an understanding of useful plants can provide leads. Seeds, fruit stones and other plant parts can be left over in abundance after edible parts are consumed and these can become a ready source for jewellery, for example: Olea (olive; Oleaceae), Manilkara zapota (sapodilla; Sapotaceae) and Prunus species (peach and plum; Rosaceae). Sometimes even edible parts are used, including spices (cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and mace) (EBC 78869), coffee beans (EBC 78900) and pine nuts (EBC 78948). Beads from species furnishing fibres and other materials are also represented (for example Cochlospermum orinocense in the Amazon, and Ceiba).
Ethnobotanical knowledge of material culture also helps. Some of the recent EBC acquisitions were made by the Tarahumara from Mexico, Seri from Mexico and Arizona, Indians from Californian, Yagua Indians of Peru, and Australian aborigines, as well as the already mentioned Sateré-Mawé from Para, Brazil. Astrocaryum chambira, for instance, is documented as a valued palm for Yagua Indians. The seed of this palm occurs as a pendant (collection EBC 98114) and it is also likely to be used in the woven band in EBC 98112. Furthermore, common names can provide clues to candidate species. Beige coloured beads described as morotoni beads in EBC 90214 were successfully matched to Schefflera morototoni after researching the vernacular name.
Common elements in botanical jewellery
Curating many samples of botanical jewellery helps to highlight particularly favoured components. Apart from plants with readily abundant seeds such as food plants (described above) or abundant, fecund weeds (for example Datura stramonium), some plant families are especially prominent including the Fabaceae (legumes) and Arecaceae (palms). Legumes are valued for their hard, durable, and often colourful seeds, and larger seeded genera like Parkia, Entada and Hymenaea provide good pendants for necklaces. Palms often have ornate fruits, like Raphia or are valued for vegetable ivory from the seed. Coix lacryma-jobi is very common in botanical jewellery over a very wide geographical range and there are many examples in the Economic Botany Collection. This is likely to be because this plant has a highly modified bony leaf sheath which surrounds the female flowers (correctly called a utricle) and the male flower shoot grows up through this forming a ready pierced ‘bead’.
The recent acquisitions of jewellery to the Economic Botany Collection provide interesting examples that complement the 19th century collections and we hope to continue to expand botanical jewellery items further in the future.
Dufayard, R. (2010). Des graines et des hommes. Les perles végétales du monde, entre esthétique et symbolique. Paris: Sang de la Terre.
Photo: Necklace from Peru of seeds of Oenocarpus, Ormosia and Coix lacryma-jobi; the woven band may be of Astrocaryum fibre (EBC, 98112); photographed by F. Cook / RBG Kew