Philippine gold jewelry has roots burrowed deep in the nation’s history. In pre-colonial times, the archipelago was renowned by traders near and far for its mineral wealth, particularly that of gold.
The Philippines was and is a literal goldmine of treasure.
The islands spanning Luzon to Mindanao partially formed what was called “Survarnadvipa”, a Sanskrit phrase that means “Islands of Gold”. According to scholars, this cluster of islands extended to other areas in Southeast Asia such as Sumatra in Indonesia.
This almost mythical reputation, “Islands of Gold”, remains true; the Philippines possesses the second-highest gold deposit in the world.
Historically, such opulence manifested in a variety of ways. Local kingdoms amassed jewelry and weapons for their palace treasuries. Even the dead were adorned by eye, nose, and mouth coverings, all made with gold.
These artifacts show that artisan traditions have long existed on the archipelago, long before the islands’ first colonizers set ashore.
Gold jewelry in particular, which was worn by local chiefs (called datus) and their wives, evoked a level of refinement that was matched only by the nearby kingdoms of Java, notes John S. Guy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Pre-colonial Philippine society, our ancestors, were advanced in artistry and craftsmanship prior to colonization.
These jewelry-making techniques were passed down through centuries and are still carried on today through the work of innovative artisans and designers. Let’s begin recognizing this by looking at how gold jewelry has changed in the Philippines through the ages.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- The popular ways to wear gold in the Philippines throughout the centuries
- What designs and styles in gold accessories have endured as times changed
- The cultural influences that inspired Filipino artistry and craftsmanship
- How the intricate craft of gold filigree is intrinsically Filipino and lives on today
PS - Looking to shop Philippine gold jewelry outside of the homeland? Check out the AMAMI Collection.
Pre-Colonial Philippine Gold Jewelry
Illustrated in the Boxer Codex, which documented ethnic groups across the archipelago, a warrior chief wears leg bands, a neck ornament, and a gold headband, intricately twisted and adorned with pairs of human figures and birds. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wearing gold jewelry in the pre-colonial Philippine archipelago was—as it still is today—a form of distinction. Teeth, for instance, were seen as canvases that could be modified to accentuate one’s beauty and prestige, beginning at a young age.
The Bolinao Skull, a notable archeological discovery, is evidence of this tradition. Found in what is now Pangasinan province, it shows the preservation of fish scale-like gold patterns smelted on the teeth of a noble warrior.
Less extreme, yet equally awe-inspiring gold-wearing practices were also observed. Headbands, or diadems, were made of thinly hammered sheet gold and rendered meandering patterns of the naga—a half-human, half-snake deity in Hinduism and Buddhism commonly seen as guardians of treasure.
Earrings were also worn regularly. Designs varied from discs that show masterfully crafted Javanese motifs to ornaments that embody the intricacies of Vajrayana Buddhist symbols.
Both Javanese and Vajrayana Buddhism were early influences embedded into local cultures of the pre-Philippine archipelago for centuries. The continuous commercial pursuits and ambitious conquests helped shape peoples’ way of life.
Belts were just as—if not more—elaborate. They appeared like an elegant tapestry with gold wires woven in a unique loop-in-loop technique. Such designs could not be found in other parts of the Malay-Javanese world, indicating that this tradition is indeed distinct to pre-colonial Philippines.
Perhaps among the most favored methods of working gold in pre-Hispanic times is the art of filigree. The artisan twists and coils fine gold wires to create intricate motifs similar to lace.
The first Spaniards who arrived to the islands witnessed this grandeur. They noted brides would wear kilograms of gold during wedding ceremonies and young children could accurately determine pure gold from alloys.
While the arrival and eventual settlement of the Spaniards overwhelmingly changed the culture in the archipelago, the rich tradition of gold filigree would live on.
Philippine Gold Jewelry During The Spanish Colonial Era
Contact between Spaniards and the natives would only increase from there. Early colonial accounts would describe the use of gold as widespread; a datu would wear heavy necklaces to a meeting on a Spanish vessel or locals would use gold rings as barter currency.
All this is documented in the Boxer Codex. In the illustrated manuscript, you’ll also find depictions of the different ethnic groups across the archipelago.
As the European power strengthened its foothold in the islands, it would eventually name the colony in honor of their King Philip II. In the Philippines, the use of gold jewelry would also adapt to express the piety of conquistadors and the elite subjects who now worshipped the same God.
Most prominently, this transformation is seen through the use of gold filigree, mainly in three forms.
First is the rosario, which originates from Catholic rosary beads.
In time, the rosario would become the tamborin (or tambourine), a necklace strung with intricate gold filigree beads of various sizes that would then meet at its center, usually shaped like a bow, garland, or a pair of wings.
Third is the relicario, a medallion meant to carry sacred relics or religious imagery, strung on a tamborin-beaded necklace. Later on, floral motifs would replace the symbols of Catholic devotion.
These gold adornments served a range of purposes. As devotional jewelry, its wearers grasped onto them for comfort in times of trouble and to ward off any evil spirits.
Still, the use of gold filigree jewelry in colonial Philippines would not be limited to pure piety. These opulent accessories showcased one’s wealth, and served as exceptions to the austere rules of dress imposed by the Church.
Ladies of the Spanish colonial era, particularly in the 18th century, were decorated head to toe in finery. A peineta or pantoche would crown their coiffed heads, and they would never step out in their silver-trimmed cochos (slippers) without wearing a pair of criollas (earrings).
The men were also outfitted in ornate accessories, from their salakot (hat) to their baston (cane).
As the rosario morphed through time, the artisans also redesigned every other accessory to suit current fashions.
Cultural Influences On Philippine Gold Jewelry
Gold filigree came to express the melting pot of cultures that had now come to be in the Philippines: a mix of Hindu-Javanese, Spanish, and Chinese influences.
It was said immigrant Chinese merchants capitalized on the demand for jewelry with their goldsmithing expertise and aesthetic knowledge. They introduced materials from the islands’ fertile waters, such as coral beads and pearls, which would beautifully alternate with gold filigree beads in various tamborin designs.
Islamic culture would also influence the design of gold jewelry. Alfajor became a type of tamborin necklace inspired by the flat pastry sandwiches popular in 12th to 13th century Spain, when Muslim rulers administered large swathes of the country.
Gold filigree jewelry in the Philippines would also become more elaborate to express a sense of luxury, even during the Spanish colonial period. Accounts note that women embellished the already ornate styles even further by reconfiguring the pieces with other precious materials such as emeralds and diamonds alongside the gold beads.
Changes only continued with the succession of societal shifts that occurred from the 20th century up until today, redefining why Filipinos would don their most precious accessories.
Philippine Gold Jewelry From The 20th Century Until Today
As the last Spanish forces and friars left the Philippines, so did their mandates about the way women adorned themselves, slowly heralding the secularization of jewelry in the country.
For instance, Florina Capistrano-Baker, a renowned scholar of Philippine art history notes that she would often wear her tamborin to social functions without minding its religious significance. Instead, she wears hers knowing her peers will be in theirs, too.
Among the well-heeled, gold filigree jewelry serves as heirlooms, passed down through generations to denote the family’s storied Hispano-Filipino heritage.
Purveyors and collectors of gold filigree drive exciting developments in the field. Designers take traditional motifs and fuse these with modern aesthetics, techniques, and materials to contemporary jewelry buyers.
One brand championing gold filigree jewelry in the Philippines is AMAMI.
In 2017, childhood friends-turned-cofounders Christine Tiu and Danielle Tan learned firsthand from local craftsmen about how the business of filigree has become financially unsustainable for artisans in the country, putting the tradition at risk of dying out forever.
Inspired by the excellent craftsmanship of the artisans, Christine and Danielle established AMAMI.
The duo set to work reimagining traditional Filipino designs for contemporary jewelry markets and ensuring the artisans are properly compensated. AMAMI thrives to this day, both in the Philippines and internationally, thanks to the collaboration between its founders and the artisans.
This new generation of jewelry-makers and -wearers (this includes you, dear reader!) bestow Philippine gold jewelry with the potential for greater appreciation. Within its homeland or beyond the shores of its origin, it’s on us to ensure that this tradition thus lives on.
Are you looking to appreciate and own a piece of gold filigree jewelry?
Check out some of the most beloved pieces from the Filipino Gold Jewelry Collection on Cambio & Co.’s website.
Want to learn more about Filipino jewelry and craftsmanship?
We published “The Island Woman’s Guide To Filipino Jewelry” for you! Claim your free copy here.
Lawrence is a writer and digital creative from Manila, who's passionate about advertising, books, and fashion history. While working on getting certified as a digital marketer, he's usually binge-watching Heartland and RuPaul's Drag Race on Netflix. You can get in touch with him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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