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March 02, 2021 4 min read

When we think of our unique melting pot of cultures, one of our most beloved is that of the Peranakans. With a history as brief as Singapore's, 'vintage' and 'heritage' design hardly dates back to more than a hundred years. The Baba-Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) fusion of Malay and Chinese is however rich in her customs, history and along with that, her influence on contemporary jewelry.

Peranakan Jewelry - A Brief History

Jewelry was a hallmark piece of Peranakan culture. Peranakans were notable for being among the first Singaporeans to own jewelry in extensive collections. Like in many cultures, their jewelry functioned ornamentally - an exhibit of beauty, and as a display of status. It broadly reflected the stature of wealth of the Peranakans and their rise in the late 19th to early 20th century.

During this prosperous time, Peranakans decorated with golden hair pins, diamond brooches, or Kerosangs - typically based in gold and used to fasten traditional tunics of the women. The size and intricacy of the Kerosang spoke greatly of the family's wealth while the hairpin refused any implication of impoverishment by keeping the woman's hair neat and together in a bun. Save for periods of mourning, you would never see a Peranakan woman's hair taken apart.

You could see how their jewelry was also emblematic of different cultural influences on the Peranakans through the ages. That of the Chinese took the form of motifs, like the flower, bird and butterfly, featuring prominently in earlier pieces. As the Peranakans came under greater European colonial influence, more Western imagery, like the unicorn, was observable.

Artisan Peranakan Jewelry for the Modern Woman

Peranakan culture lives on in the colorful shophouses along Singapore's Joo Chiat, Emerald Hill and in that mouthful of Babi Pongteh - a traditional Nyonya braised pork dish. The timelessness of its jewelry is today honored by modern jewelers who've found the perfect marriage between contemporary and traditional Peranakan style. Taking from tradition, these artisan jewelry piecesoften feature hand woven beaded elements and vibrant color palettes - inspired by the elaborate embroidery work found on a woman's kebaya.These modern pieces may not have a long lineage of previous owners but they do not skimp out on authenticity and beauty when compared to vintage pieces.They may in fact be preferred for their relative affordability without compromising on artistry and durability.

EDEN + ELIE's handcrafted jewelry takes inspiration from traditional elements of vintage Peranakan pieces. Modern in their foundation metal choice - 22 to 24 carat gold-plated metal, the highest gold-plating which ensures durability in our humid climate. The Modern Peranakan Collection is a line of earrings, bangles and necklaces progressive in its lavish incorporation of beading to create the Peranakan-inspired floral patterns as opposed to using a wholly gold composite that is traditionally worn. Beads were typically found on the slippers of a Peranakan woman's dressing, and embroidered rather than woven as found in this collection.

A personal favorite of mine would be the The Modern Peranakan Gold Narrow Bangle in Vermillion from EDEN + ELIE which features a floral pattern in bold vermilion red, inspired by the rich colors and motifs in Peranakan design. The handcrafted jewelry piece sees delica beads sewn into a weave and inlaid in the channel of a 24k gold-plated bangle. It sits perfect as a statement piece or gifted as a meaningful keepsake. To both Peranakans and non-Peranakans, the thoughtfulness and intentionality that goes into the beading of these pieces and the unique heritage from which they borrow inspiration from, give them that bit more charm that other contemporary jewelry does not offer.

More Than Embellishments - Stories To Cherish

When I was younger and audacious enough, I would venture into the land of fine jewels that was my grandmother's dresser drawer. I would purvey gold and silver chains, finely cut gems resting on rings and pendants. My grandmother would walk in on me, her territorial instincts made gracious perhaps by my doe-eyedness and persistent interest in something that was precious to her. Her choice of jewelry for the evening always sparked a conversation between her and I for it was usually markedly different from my mother's and mine. Her neck would feature flashy pieces of gold with the occasional precious stone and brass bangles on her wrists. The embellishments on these artisan jewelry pieces were that much more intricate and sophisticated than those on my cheaply furnished necklaces I was misplacing every two weeks. She would tell me about the significance of a symbol on a pendant or the way a particular finishing was achieved using a traditional melding method.

These stories are now being retold through modern appropriations of these relics without compromising the culture's integrity. I now am able to carry a piece of Peranakan culture on a handmade bangle that looks like it belongs to two different periods of time.

The shibboleth of Peranakan jewelry that supported its perpetuation within the families has evolved over time. The beauty of the craftsmanship however still breathes in these modern adaptations of the culture, keeping the spirit of the Peranakan heritage alive.

Sasha Lye

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