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Gold of Enlightenment


© AMNH / Craig Chesek

Gautama Buddha crowned: Copper alloy, gold gilt, semi-precious stones, and pigment. Tibet; c. late 1800s-early 1900s.

Among many cultures in Asia, owning gold was the privilege of the highest classes. Gold was the secret treasure of wealthy merchants or was used in temples. Although gold has been mined in China for almost 4,000 years, and in Japan for about 3,000 years, these Asian peoples made solid gold objects infrequently. Gold was mostly used for decoration of objects or for money.

In Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, human representations of the Buddha, or of Bodhisattvas--enlightened beings--are widespread. They are often depicted in cast, hammered and gilded figures.

Gold inlay--carved designs filled with thin metal--was important in Japanese decorative arts. In particular, the artisans who made swords and their fittings used gold alloys to create subtle color tints.


© AMNH / Craig Chesek

Keris Handle: Gold keris hilt, possibly in the form of one of the Pandava brothers from the Mahabarata Bali, Indonesia; c. late 1800s-early 1900s.

A Woman's Worth or a Sign of Royal Birth

The peoples of South and Southeast Asia have mined gold for thousands of years and used it with skill since ancient times. The traditional dagger of Southeast Asia, the keris--pronounced "crease"--originated in Java as far back as 1400 BC. The keris is so intimately linked to its owner that it is thought to be alive. Only royalty could possess a keris decorated in gold.

Today, India is the world's largest consumer of gold. South Asian jewelry is generally of higher purity than western jewelry-22 karats, compared to 14 karats-and it is sold at a smaller markup. Many South Asians purchase jewelry as a form of dowry for a bride.

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