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The Art and History of 100 years of Peranakan Jewelry

Jewelry rarely survives through the ages. They were often disassembled and remade into more fashionable pieces. So archaeological finds such as those found at Sutton Hoo or buried hoards like the medieval jewelry from the time of the Black Death are important because they give us an idea of what jewelry looked like in a particular place and time. Another reason why jewelry disappears is during wartime. 

I was born and raised in Malaysia as part of a unique South East Asian fusion culture - a descendant of predominantly 15th -16th century Chinese male immigrants who married local Malay women in South East Asia. There was significant trade between the imperial Chinese empire and the region for many centuries, long before the Europeans arrived, as the area is where the famed spice islands are located. According to historians, some of the early settlers might have came from Kublai Khan's large combined Chinese and Mongol invasion fleet  in the 13th century. 

The Peranakan, as they became to be known as, settled mostly in some parts of Indonesia, Penang and Malacca in Malaysia (once British Malaya) and in Singapore.  

Map Credit 

Over time, the Peranakan, which literally means "descendants or local born", developed a unique style - a blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian and later on, European influences - for literally everything in their lives. From architecture, interior design, housewares, cuisine, clothing to jewelry, they had a strong sense of design. When Malaya and Singapore were later colonized, the Peranakan were quick to assimilate British customs and even the language into their already rich patois.

My Ah Mah (1912-1990), my maternal nonya (female Peranakan) grandmother was a professional artisan in her own right even though she was not educated. Girls were not sent to school in her time. She couldn't read but was an amazing crafter. She learned how to crochet simply by carefully unpicking baby bootees! Self taught, she became skilled at creating intricate machine embroidered Peranakan clothing on her treadle machine - see my past post 100 years of South East Asian Nonya Embroidery

The 1930's picture at the top shows her wearing the traditional triple nonya brooch kerosang (brooch) which fastens her buttonless cotton jacketShe added a pendant necklace, earrings and a coronet to her outfit.  The kerosang were first popularized by the nonya in Penang, my home state, before spreading to other areas.

This picture of my step great-grandmother below - also from the same era - shows more clearly the ibu (mother) and one of the two anak (child) kerosang.  Named so because the main paisley shaped brooch is the biggest of the triple set.  The kerosang in both photos are virtually identical which makes me think they were shared between the two women for their formal portraits.  These were clearly the family's best pieces.

What is distinctive about Peranakan jewelry the frequent use of 18k- 22K gold and diamonds called intan as shown in this photo of a vintage ibu anak kerosang set. (See the Gemgardener for more spectacular Peranakan jewelry examples including 19th century ones).  

Picture Credit : Enticz

Intan are Peranakan style rose cut diamonds. Intan gems are unique to South-East Asia. The rose cut technique was first developed in India in the 17th century. The diamonds were sliced or hand cleaved with few and uneven facets. They were flat i.e. they lack the point (pavilion) of modern brilliant cut diamonds. The intan is very similar to partially faceted style of Indian polki diamonds which dates back to the Mughal era (1526-1857). Indian polki diamonds can also be uncut and simply polished like cabochons.

Modern Brilliant Cut Side view Picture credit
Most old Peranakan intan are thought to have came from the diamond mines in Southern Kalimantan (Borneo) in Indonesia, the only ones in the region. 

The deliberate use of little irregular "rough hewn" organic look diamonds show that the Peranakan nonyas were way, way ahead in the popular raw gemstone jewelry style we see today!  Many of the randomly shaped intan were bezel set which required a lot of time, effort and skill from metalsmiths.  Look closely at this detail from Enticz's vintage handmade ibu kerosang below - only the focal diamonds are prong set.   

Prong set intan were much more prevalent after the Second World War probably because the technique was less labor intensive.  In recent years, genuine vintage Peranakan intan jewelry have become highly collectible and very, very pricey. 

Shown here is a gorgeous 1950's kerosang rantai - triple chain connected matching brooches favored by nonyas after the ibu anak kerosang style became old fashioned by their standards.  Halim Antique Jewelry has many fine examples of Peranakan jewelry. 

Delicate Victorian or Art Nouveau style of designs predominate but other designs also exist. It was really up to individual nonyas what they wanted to wear. They visited their favorite goldsmiths whenever they had the means and urge to add to their jewelry collections. 

Designs were collaborations. I remember accompanying my mother on such occasions where the goldsmith would sketch design ideas based on what she wanted. She would have acquired a gemstone  directly or indirectly from a local gem trader - my father sometimes bought her gemstones as gifts.

Shown here is an amazing 1960's vintage ring making full use of several small grey intan diamonds in a modern design. By themselves, grey intan lacks impact but in a group, they can be gorgeous.

This 1960's Vase of Flowers vintage pendant shows the other favorite gemstone of the nonyas - jade.

Jewelry was important to the nonyas. Women back then were uneducated. They did not work outside the home or own property. But Peranakan culture was such that girls and women were often gifted precious jewelry as much as their families could afford. These were not just their best accessories but tangible possessions they could truly call their very own. The nonyas would proudly pass their jewelry collection down to the next generation.  Precious gold and gemstone jewelry was also their security to be used in time of great need.

My maternal grandparents' wedding photo, 1930

When I was young, I was amazed by my grandmother's jewelry in the old photos especially the huge heavy-looking anklets in her wedding photo above.  These were probably hollow silver gilt hinged anklets like this one owned by Enticz who has a sizeable collection of all things Peranakan as well as antiques.

Some pre- Second World War Peranakan jewelry have survived and are now in museums and private collections. But as for my family's jewelry in those old photos? I asked my Ah Mah where they were and she replied, "All gone". Save for one piece.

Like her contemporaries worldwide who lived through the 1918 pandemic, the Great Depression and two World Wars, she endured years of privation, hardship, fear and sorrow especially during WWII, yet never complained or spoke much about her experiences. That stoic generation just did what they had to do, to survive, to raise their families without any help and without knowing when the war would end.

In the late 19th and early 20th century,  Japan militarized after seeing several Asian countries becoming colonies of Western powers. It was a time when Imperial China was viewed as a piece of cake to be devoured by powerful European nations.  The Japanese reasoned the only way they could escape the same fate was to become a colonizer themselves. By 1905, their navy was strong enough to defeat the Russian navy in the Battle of Tsushima.  By the 1930's Japan had taken over Korea, Manchuria and invaded China.  They also set their eyes on South-East Asia and its rich natural resources - timber, rubber, tin etc.

Most Americans know December 7, 1941 as the " Day of Infamy".  But how many know the Japanese actually launched a three-prong attack? They not only crippled the US Navy at Pearl Harbor but  simultaneously landed in British Malaya and the US-controlled Philippines, their main objectives. The fall of Singapore soon followed- one of the worst bungled military defeats in British Army history. Without fleet support, tens of thousands of American and Filipino armed forces fought bravely, with huge losses, during the Battle of the Philippines. The Philippines fell to the Japanese in early 1942. 

The local populations were thus left to fend for themselves. Many families like mine were in grave peril. Peranakan jewelry making probably ground to a halt during this time.

My parents were children then. My mother recalls being very sick because there wasn't enough proper food.  Extended family stayed with them because they lost their home to Japanese bombing raids. My maternal grandfather did not earn enough from his Japanese overseers to feed them all.  No wonder Ah Mah sold off everything of value in desperate attempts to buy food. Ah Mah and the women in the household helped out at a family drinks and cakes stall.  Ah Mah also sewed custom kebayas clothing which the nonyas wore - anything to bring in extra income.

Many children also lost out on 4 years of schooling. Families kept adolescent girls and young women at home and out of sight as the risk of abduction to serve as "comfort" women for Japanese troops was real. Japanese soldiers were "billeted" to local kitchens for their food. Mum's family house was the one they used for frying eggs. Ah Mah would hide the young women of the family in a bedroom whenever Japanese soldiers came to the house. 

The Japanese back then ruled with impunity. Any hint of resistance was brutally dealt with, all without trial.

My paternal grandfather became the manager of a rubber plantation when the British one fled to Singapore. He narrowly escaped being beheaded by an enraged Japanese officer over a misunderstanding about the price of the plantation chickens. As far as that Japanese commandant for the area knew, my paternal grandparents were childless. There were actually eight of them! My father and his mostly older brothers and sisters hid in two small huts deep in the jungle for four years. 

He was just a boy of 10 when the war broke out. Dad never read us stories from books when my siblings and I were young but he told us stories of how they survived in the jungle where finding food was the main preoccupation. 9-year-old Me :"What did the iguana you caught taste like?" Dad :"Chicken."

Too young to take part in his older brothers' dangerous wild boar hunts involving pit traps and dogs, he still helped find food by fishing in crocodile infested rivers - the crocodiles nearly got him on a couple of occasions. My paternal grandparents lived in fear Japanese jungle patrols would stumble upon their children. They were close at least once, according to family lore.

There was just one pre-war family jewelry survivor - a very old, pitted, well-worn gold ring shown below.  It is actually a man's ring, a wedding gift from my grandmother's parents to their new son-in-law. But my grandfather refused to wear any jewelry after their wedding, so my grandmother wore it instead.

The simple multi-prong ring features an unusually large intan with few facets, visible inclusions and poor clarity. Large intan - a diamond "skin", hand cleaved from a raw nugget - were often flawed. Ah Mah saved this ring not because she couldn't sell it but because it was the last remaining pre-war gift from family. When I was old enough, she gave it to me. This ring is beyond price to me.

The art of Peranakan jewelry making has not died. The craftsmen resumed their work after the war. There are still goldsmiths today who make Peranakan jewelry. It is a style which grows in popularity with every passing year.

One of the most famous owners of modern Peranakan jewelry is Queen Elizabeth II.  The Bird of Paradise pendant/brooch was created with 18K gold and 61 round brilliant cut diamonds. It was a gift from Singapore to the Queen for her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.  

The Queen has received many jewelry gifts over her long reign and many go unworn except when the occasion demands it. Yet, this gold filigree brooch has been worn several times - this blogger and avid Royal jewelry fan has kept count - including at the 2015 christening of her great-granddaughter, Princess Charlotte. It's clearly one of her personal favorites, not just to be saved for formal state occasions involving Singapore.

Screen capture from video below

The unusual domed pendant/brooch was designed by Thomis Kwan of Foundation Jewellers in Singapore. They specialize in modern Peranakan jewelry. 

Picture Credit : Peranakan Bird of Paradise Pendant/Brooch

Lin Teck Ngian, a master jeweler at the company, was the goldsmith who made the exquisite brooch.  He is featured here in this video talking about his craft and the making of the Bird of Paradise brooch. I hope younger artisans will learn from him to keep the art and style alive for the future.

Before You Go:

This blog may contain affiliate links. I do receive a small fee for any products purchased through affiliate links. This goes towards the support of this blog and to provide resource information to readers. The opinions expressed are solely my own. They would be the same whether or not I receive any compensation. 
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM 


  1. Thank you for sharing this Pearl! Such a fascinating glimpse into other times

  2. Even when you know about certain historical events, a more personal account expands your understanding. Peranakan jewelry is exquisite!

  3. That's fascinating, thank you for sharing your story! the craftsmanship at the time is amazingly detailed, especially when considering the tools available. Wow, just wow.

  4. Well blow me over with a feather!

    First - I had no idea that Malaysia was actually two separate areas install all in one place.
    I had to go look at Penang - and the square kms is very small for a population like that.
    You must tell me exactly where you lived Pearl.

    Secondly - I could tell these pics were of women related to you! You look like both your mother and grandmother. It would be easy to pick them out after all these years of knowing you. You bear a very strong resemblance to both. Nice!

    Lastly - Peranakan jewelry is definitely something I would wear. I love that look! And - brooches are back Baby!!

    Thanks for this wonderful look into your family history my friend. I am always intrigued by this kind of history. It helps bring the horrors and realities of that time to clearer light.

    I said I was intrigued yesterday. Today you have caused me to go on another journey of discovery and it's even more intriguing!

    1. People say I look very much like my mother and perhaps a little of my grandmother. I did not share a picture of my mother. The picture of the other woman is that of my step-great grandmother who was not a blood relative.

    2. I realize that you didn't share a pic of your mother here - but I believe you have with me personally.
      You look very much like your grandmother. Again - I would know you were related right away!

    3. LOL! Did I? I can't remember. A real senior moment!

  5. Thank you Pearl for sharing this incredibly interesting post! Sharing some of your own history made it even more worthwhile!

  6. Thanks everyone for your kind words. History does come alive when taken in context with the lives of those who had to live through harrowing times.

  7. Dear Pearl, you are so kind to share your family's history. You've told about your family in other blogs, but this one was particularly interesting and touching. The jewelry of that period was fascinating as were the pictures of your family. While my attention has been on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima (which happened on my first birthday), I was in the navy and stationed on the island of Okinawa for 3 years, and my father was a Marine serving in in the Far East including both Okinawa and China.

    The Peranakan jewelry is fascinating and quite beautiful.

    Thank you for sharing.


    1. Did your Dad serve during the war?

      The British were too preoccupied in Europe and could not really defend its colonies. There were only two old battleships in SE Asia which were soon dispatched off by the Japanese navy. The only way they could take over SE Asia was to cripple the US Navy, the only major force in the Pacific. A calculated risk which eventually went against them as the US then entered the war.

  8. Pearl, have you heard of this series called Jewelry detectives by the Jewelry library? they look for origins of a piece and trace all the socio-cultural-political-economical changes during the lifetime of the piece. Well, this post and your story about your family reminded me of that series. I have watched some old Tamil movies that would speak about the brutality of soldiers in Malaysia and Burma but I can't even imagine hiding in the jungle as a child. How cruel are we as a race? Anyway, that aside, the jewels reminded me of the in Malaya jewels that I saw in the Traditional textiles museum in KL. The buttons, hair jewels and buckles are out of the world really.

    1. No! But I will certainly check out that channel. It sounds just like what I would enjoy. Didn't know you visited KL! There are some incredible jewelry designs - not just Peranakan. The whole area had significant trade with the Imperial Chinese Empire as well as traders from old Persia and India. So there was a lot of influences on designs.

      Nobody truly wins any war. It is just a monumental waste and a lot of suffering.

  9. Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.


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