Wednesday, January 26, 2005

What is a dZi bead?

Above photo: Different types of 
ancient dZi beads (Wylie: gZi)

In Tibet and the Himalayan regions the word dZi (say zee) is the generic name for a large variety of ancient chalcedony, agate or carnelian stone beads. The vast majority of dZi beads have been heat treated to enhance the natural crystalline banding in the stone or to darken the material in preparation for applying the decorated lines. There are very few beads that can be classed as 'naturally occurring'. This is  because at least some treatments were involved in darkening or dyeing the stone, a process used by gemstone or lapidary workers for thousands of years. Contrary to popular belief, the name dZi is not only reserved for stone beads with eyes. This being said, it is probably the eye beads (including beads with unusual motifs) that are most widely recognised and accepted as being true dZi beads. Nevertheless, any ancient agate bead found within a Tibetan or Himalayan context can still be considered to be a type of dZi bead. If an ancient agate bead has been found in Thailand for example (clearly not within a Tibetan context), it would not necessarily be appropriate to call it a dZi bead.
A bead can only be considered to be truly ancient if it was created more than 1000 years ago. It is also important to recognise that not all ancient dZi beads were created during the same period or come from the same region. Some beads could pre-date others by as much as 3000 years and would have found their way to Tibet by traders and countless pilgrims passing along the silk road. Beads can also vary greatly in quality, shape, design and even the methods used to create them may differ. We must not forget that Tibetans strongly believe that true dZi beads are not created by human hands and this is one of the many reasons they are so highly valued. There are many varieties of dZi beads that can be found and their condition can vary greatly. This means that some types have become much more valuable than others.
The rarest dZi that display eyes and unusual motifs are often referred to as true dZi or 'pure' dZi and are easily distinguished from other beads. These beads are usually the most sought after, however, in the Himalayan regions dZi are always valued on their individual merits. For example, an exceptional Chong dZi (Wylie: mchong) can be much more desirable than a mediocre dZi bead with eyes. Also, some pure dZi may be comparable in quality to eye beads but display other types of decoration like a lotus or vase for example. The type and quality of decoration will therefore greatly contribute to the desirability of a bead and its use as an amulet.

Above:  Tasso dZi (centre) flanked by Tiger dZi.

I personally group dZi into two main categories (see below), which is primarily based on how Tibetans view and trade dZi. Throughout the year I source dZi from a number of experienced Himalayan bead dealers and collectors who are mainly of Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese origin. This gives me a very clear understanding of how these beads are viewed in the different regions of the Himalayas. The categories below are also shaped by the current trends in desirability and market value. Collectors of dZi outside of the Himalayan regions have certainly influenced this in recent years.

Above: Ancient agate bead
 (This agate bead has not been decorated, however, like most ancient 
agate beads it has been treated to alter or enhance the colour)

 What is Agate?

Agate is a common semi-precious silica mineral that has long been used as a gemstone ornament. Agate is the most common variety of chalcedony which is a form of quartz. Agate is, in fact, identical with quartz in composition and physical properties. Composed of silicon dioxide (SiO2), it has a hardness of 7, a glassy luster, a conchoidal fracture, and a specific gravity of 2.60. Agate obtains its typical banded appearance through the disposition of other substances and layers, and the bands may consist of the most varied representatives of the quartz group, chalcedony, carnelian, onyx and jasper.
Agate is prized in the Middle East and Asia as a protective amulet and general good luck stone. Apparently 'enhydro' agates (water agates) were also popular charms for pregnancy. The practice of decorating beads has been known since at least 2500 BCE in the Indus Valley and nearly all ancient agate beads have been treated in some way. More often than not these beads have been dyed by applying a sugar rich solution (Jamey D. Allen) and then fired to transform the colour. Light coloured agates would turn brown or black and the white concentric crystalline layers or 'eyes' would become more apparent. Thus making the bead much more visually attractive as an 'eye' amulet.
Category 1 is generally the most sought after group of beads (in order of desirabilty). It should be noted that dZi with eyes tend to be the most sought after of all dZi, however, other beads in this category can easily be more valuable. In some cases, if beads are sold as a matched pair this can greatly increase their value. As an example, a pair of perfectly 'matched' Tiger dZi would command greater value as a pair than if both beads were sold individually.

A more simple way to view these categories is by seeing that all beads in category 1 are regarded as 'pure' dZi and therefore of non-human origin. Luk Mik dZi with decoration would be regarded as a pure dZi within this category and natural varieties would not. Even the bead hole is believed to be a natural occurrence and not drilled by hand. Beads in category 2 are also highly valued as amulets, however, they would not be seen as possessing the same merits as category 1 beads. Ancient beads that have a terrestrial origin do not hold quite the same allure as beads believed to have fallen from the heavens.

Above: Ancient Three Eyed dZi bead

Category 1:
  • dZi with eyes (which include fusiform, oval and barrel shaped dZi).
  • Oval dZi (which can include lotus designs, longevity vase and other decorations. In some regions of Tibet these beads can be more sought after than beads with eyes.
  • dZi with unusual designs (which can include a combination of eyes and unique motifs).
  • Tiger dZi (Tibetan: Taklok) - These beads are oval shaped and display a 'double stripe' decoration. Sometimes rare beads can contain more stripes.
  • Tasso dZi (Horse tooth). These single stripe dZi are not to be confused with the 'double stripe' tiger dZi.
  • Luk Mik dZi or Ta Mik dZi (Goat's Eye or Horse Eye) - This includes both decorated and natural varieties that are likely to have originated from India and Western Asia. It is the decorated variety of these tabular beads that are most sought after and perhaps are even as desirable as some of the other pure dZi. Some rare beads can include symbols such as a swastika or cross. Only the decorated beads are seen as pure dZi.
Above: Ancient Chong dZi with stripes

Category 2:

  • Chong or Chung dZi with unusual decorations and eyes - Some Chong dZi can display eyes and other decorations, they are very collectible but do not fall into the pure dZi category and this is reflected in their market value.
  • Chong dZi with stripes (see photo above).
  • Phum dZi - These wonderful beads usually display a net or longevity decoration and in some rare cases they can display eyes and other decorations. They are usually grey/black in colour and display a white decoration. They can also be much fatter than other beads and have a less uniformed shape.
  • Natural banded agates or natural dZi beads. These beads are usually coloured brown to dark black and have crystalline banding. Although other colours like greys, reds and even yellows may also be seen. They are typically translucent when held in the light. The most sought after of these beads will display naturally occuring eyes and a strong dark base colour. These beads are classed as natural but it is likely that most have been treated to enhance the colour of the stone and bring out the crystalline banding.
  • Natural round (sometimes barrel shaped) agate beads known as Bhaisajyaguru, Soloman or Suleimani beads. They are usually opaque beads that are black/brown/grey in colour and can display natural crystalline banding. They are considered perfect beads for spacers or complete malas.
  • Decorated (also known as etched) agates and carnelians (which include the Pyu beads of Burma and decorated beads found in Southern India and Western Asia). These beads can display stripes, eyes and unusual decorations. They also come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can range from subtle orange to deep ruby red in colour (if made from carnelian). Their decoration is usually white but can also appear in black.
  • Pumtek ~ I am only referring to the 'ancient' decorated beads made from silicified wood that are believed to be from the Pyu/Tircul period and earlier. I am not referring to later creations. Ancient Pumtek originate from Burma and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and designs. There are different periods of production for these beads and this will affect their value and desirability. At the present time very little is known about these beads and it is likely they will increase greatly in value over the coming years. Some will argue that Pumtek should not be here because they are clearly not Tibetan, however, Pumtek beads do turn up on Tibetan heirloom necklaces and are often sold by Tibetan dZi dealers. If this is the case they are usually viewed as a variety of Chong dZi. This is seen a lot with the agatized cylinder beads with zig zag decorations (see below). If they are not found within a Tibetan context they should not be included in this category.
Above: Ancient Pumtek with zig zag decoration.

*'Natural means that the bead has not been decorated, however, the bead may have been treated to alter or enhance the colour.

Other stone beads that are prized by Tibetans include:
  •         Pema Raka - Antique and ancient carnelians
  •         Coral
  •         Turquoise
  •         Amber
  •         Lapis Lazuli
  •         Conch (Chank Shell)

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