Quick: what jewelry are you wearing as you’re reading this?

Do you know who made it and what they were trying to say? What are you trying to say about yourself as you’re wearing it?

Now imagine a time when there were strict rules about the jewelry you wore, because that one item of adornment could tell the world all sorts of things about who you were and where you came from. What a difference from the paradoxically anonymous Chopards and Tiffanys of today!

Consider the silver Padung-Padung earrings from Indonesia.

These were not earrings that you had in rotation in your jewelry box— given their heft (some could weigh up to one kilo) and the difficulty of wearing them (strung through a distended earlobe and then mounted on an elaborate headdress), once they were on, they were on for life. It was rather like having your name and lineage tattooed on your forehead.

Now, if a lady were to don a pair of these beauties, observers could tell the following about her:

–That she was from the Karo Batak tribe of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia, since Padung-Padung earrings were their distinctive jewelry. While typically dismissed as primitive hill tribes by colonial authorities, the Karo Bataks had long participated in sophisticated trading networks with the great powers of Asia, notably the Tamil Chola empire of South India.1 This led to a cross-fertilisation, which can be seen in their jewelry among other things: the choice of metals used in the Padung-Padung earrings are the five sacred Hindu metals or pancha dhatu (gold, silver, copper, brass and bronze).

— That she was from one of the founding families of the village, since only such women could wear Padung-Padung earrings.2

–That she was married, since only married women could wear the Padung-Padung—it was given as a gift to the bride from the groom’s family. The earrings would be worn one up, one down, as a symbol of how through a lifetime, either the husband or the wife could have the upper hand in a marriage.3

–That she still felt affinity with her ancient tribal roots even after Bataks converted to Islam and Christianity.4

 

As the modern hordes slouch towards further anonymity, it’s hard to conceive of a time when we telegraphed our identities so clearly to the world.

 

Admittedly those older identities no longer have much significance for most of us. But why are we settling instead for being told who we are by MBAs in far-away London/ New York/ Paris?

Perhaps, we need this neutral ground on which to navigate our relationships with each other in this new world.

When we work and live far away from the communities into which we were born, perhaps all we can hope to signal to the strangers around us is that we are wealthy—so please treat us with respect.