Hair adornments were a vital part of women’s jewelry in many parts of East Asia, recently reinforced during a visit in 2016 to the Asian galleries of the Newark Museum of Art. Metal hairpins were not numerous among the Japanese, Korean and Chinese jewelry on display, although Chinese metal examples have been well documented (Duda 2002, Hang 2005, Lingley 2007, Liu 1999). Perhaps this results from many such ornaments being from the lower classes or general populace, and not from the upper classes, thus not of significant crafting or preciousness to warrant inclusion in museum collections.
While on this same trip, I was able to study a large selection of relatively simple Chinese silver hairpins at Leekan Designs of New York, well-worn and dating from the early twentieth century or possibly even earlier, obtained from Beijing in the 1980s. Later, Paddy Kan sent me a more comprehensive collection of hairpins. The twisted wire hairpins shown on the facing page do not appear to have been published before, although some of the other more elaborate ones are shown in Duda (2002), Hang (2005) and Lingley (2007). Given the large populations of this country during the last centuries, such hairpins would be expected to be numerous, especially since some were worn in multiples, although all vintage Chinese jewelry is now scarce. Most hairpins were stuck into buns, to hold this hairstyle in place, while flat ones had hair wrapped around them. Interestingly, the very simple twisted hairpins have been employed as defensive weapons by women in Chinese martial arts movies. To anyone with an interest in metalsmithing, these hairpins are most likely products of small, unsophisticated workshops, but demonstrate a surprising number of clever techniques, also used in the manufacture of the metal portions of Chinese bangles (Liu 2013).
I do not know if such jewelry techniques have been covered in the Chinese literature, since I do not read Chinese, although Hang (2005) does mention the use of press-molding for rattan and silver bangles. Hang is also the most comprehensive in coverage of Chinese hairpins, historic and vintage. Najdowski (2011) has described and shown images of dies used by the Miao minority in making repouseé silver or base metal jewelry. It is very likely that Han jewelers also used similar tools and techniques, given that dies were widely used in hairpin manufacture. Due to the extensive and repeated use of popular motifs in Chinese jewelry, which all have significant meanings as rebuses (Bartholomew 2006), it makes sense to use dies to replicate these complex, yet standardized designs.
Bartholomew, T.T. 2006 Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art. San Francisco, Asian Art Museum: 352 p.
Duda, M. 2002 Four Centuries of Silver. Personal Adornment in the Qing Dynasty and After. Singapore, Times Edition: 208 p.
Hang, H. 2005 Precious Adornment Kit. Ming, Ching to Republic of China Era. Female Traditional Silver Ornaments. Beijing, Sanlian Bookstore: 422 p.
Lingley, K. A. 2007 Excelling the Work of Heaven. Personal Adornment from China. Featuring the Shyn Collection. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Art Gallery: 158 p.
Liu, R. K. 1992 Wholesale to the Trade. Overseas Trading Company. Ornament 15 (3): 104-105.
—1999 Collectibles. Chinese Hair Ornaments. Ornament 23 (2): 8-9.
—2013 Vintage Chinese Bangles. Rattan, bamboo, coral, and more. Ornament 37 (1): 16-19.
Najdowski, P. 2011 Guzang Miao Festival. Ceremonial silver. Ornament 34 (5): 70-73.
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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty-plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. Recently he has been giving one-on-one photography lessons at our office, as well as teaching workshops on bamboo and matrix jewelry. In this issue Liu writes about vintage Chinese silver hairpins of the general populace, an important item in the personal adornment of many Asian women in the past centuries.