Coastal Sri Lankan 19th Century Jewellery by Michael Backman
A significant quantity of jewellery was produced in Sri Lanka in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century for local Ceylonese and expatriate communities. Much of it was produced in the southern coastal regions, rather than in the Kandyan interior. Many examples found their way to the United Kingdom where they often turn up in collections and for sale and all too frequently are mis-attributed to India. This is most evident with coastal Sri Lankan hairpins which almost invariably are described as Mughal ‘turban pins’ by auctioneers – perhaps out of ignorance or possibly in the hope of getting a higher price for them. Known as kondakoora hairpins, each has an arrow-like end and a boteh-shaped finial. See the photograph 1 for some examples.
Many of these hairpins have been fitted with pins so that they can be worn as brooches. But this was not necessarily done in the UK as some believe. Fashions among the coastal Ceylonese changed towards the end of the nineteenth century. Hairpins fell out of favour and so many were converted to brooches to be worn on the upper chest and shoulder, reflecting a new fashion for brooches.
Other brooches were also made, and so too were pendants. (See photograph 2 for an example of a brooch which can also be worn as a pendant.) But all use the same techniques and motifs. All, for example, are pierced, and most typically (though not exclusively) are set with faceted zircons. Others are set with pink sapphires. Often, it is assumed that the pink-red stones used are rubies – but rubies are not indigenous to Sri Lanka, whereas sapphires in blue and pink as well as other colours are relatively plentiful.
The jewellery tends to be fashioned from silver or silver alloy as well, sometimes with the inclusion of small gilded sections or gold. Traditionally zircons have been referred to in the UK as jargons, and this has led to further misidentification. Jargoons were used a lot during Georgian times and so colonial Sri Lankan jewellery often will be mis-catalogued as ‘Georgian’.
In Sri Lanka, faceted zircons were cut, polished and set in Matara, a southern seaport on the south coast, not too far from the better-known fortified Portuguese town of Galle. Euphemistically, the stones became known as ‘Matara diamonds’. (See photograph 3 for an image of the entrance to the Dutch fort in Matara today.)
This jewellery tends to feature scrolling floral and foliate motifs associated with the tropical Sri Lankan interior. Many brooches employ katiri mala flower motifs, a design that is often seen on Kandyan silverwork of the nineteenth century.
Many of the silversmiths and jewellery makers were Tamil and they migrated from Sri Lanka to the Malay Peninsula where they made items for local Straits Chinese and Chettiar clients. Over time, small concessions were made to local design preferences but close similarities remain so that today it is sometimes difficult to tell whether some items were made in Sri Lanka or Malaya. Of course, some items such as the kerosang brooches made for Straits Chinese ladies to pin their blouses closed (they did not use buttons) are unique to Southeast Asia but their workmanship clearly is of Tamil origin. (See photograph 4 for an example.) But then the Chettiar migrant women of Malacca on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula took to wearing the boteh-shaped hairpins that had been popular in Sri Lanka and it is no longer clear if those were made locally or imported from Sri Lanka.