From the Zulu warriors in South Africa to the ancient Egyptians of North Africa, to the pilgrims of the Middle East or South America, beads have a presence in many cultures but the one commonality is that they have always been more than an eye-catching accessory. The story of the beads of Borneo is no exception.
According to sarawaktourism.com, for many cultures, they were a currency, or perhaps a sign of faith, a symbol of wealth or a family heirloom to be treasured for future generations. Whatever the purpose, the one consistency is that they are always a way of expression.
Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo has a unique relationship with the beads of Borneo. Although there isn’t any definitive evidence of when exactly the beads came to the region, there is evidence to suggest beads were first used in Borneo by visiting sailors for bartering. Back then, beads were made out of shells, teeth, bones and stones that were perforated and worn as ornaments.
Some Sarawak tribes believe that the longer a bead lasts, the more powerful it becomes and the bearer can draw strength from the bead. However, to do so, the bearer must have a strong soul.
There are over 30 tribes in Sarawak and each tribe has its own way of adorning themselves with beads. Some of them use them as necklaces, others as beaded head caps or beaded skirts, others as bracelets or even rings. Beads would also be used as decorations during festivals or other big gatherings.
Many of the antique beads of Borneo are hard to find now. There are a number of reasons for this. Historically, the beads were sometimes buried with their owners as part of their grave clothes, or as “grave gifts”, for the deceased to use in their long journey to the underworld.
As mentioned, beads were also used as currency, often traded with visiting sailors or lost in the sometimes devastating longhouse fires that could rip through 100 doors in less than an hour.
As beads were increasingly hard to come by and time became a precious commodity, modern-day beads are mostly imported from Indonesia and China, according to Heidi Munan, Sarawak Museum’s curator of beads. However, they are still influenced by the original beads of Borneo.
So while these new beads are still traded, they are no longer the currency of trade. And despite being mass-produced, they are increasingly expensive yet have little of the character of the original beads. At the same time, the number of communities still making the beads of Borneo in the traditional manner is slowly diminishing.