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Tamborine Jewelry: When God is in the Details

Kitkat Torres

Devotion is the catalyst for change, and while there’s no mistaking that the search for power and riches was among the driving forces that led Spanish conquistadors to sail across the world, Christianity had ultimately become the major force that would greatly shape the cultural, economic, and religious landscape of the Philippine Islands—an influence that would leave its lasting mark on Filipiniana heritage jewelry.

Even before the arrival of the Europeans, religious ornaments had always been integral to Philippine culture, evolving to suit the ongoing sociopolitical climate. And perhaps, it is a story best embodied by tamborine jewelry. Traditionally said to be inspired by the rosary, there is more to the tamborine than meets the eye as we delve into the history behind the delicate gold or silver filigree bead necklaces. 

Learning from the bloody mistakes of colonizing South America, the Spanish looked to Catholicism as a more humane way to assimilate Filipinos towards a more Western mindset. They particularly found similarities in local religious practices and adapted them. The priests, for instance, noticed how the early Filipinos wore jewelry not only for ornamentation, but also to symbolize position, allegiance, and beliefs. Jewelry then became one of the bridges that connected once Buddist, Islamic, or Pagan communities to Christianity, with priests strategically replacing items like “anting-antings” or “agimats” (amulets) with scapulars and crosses, and precolonial prayer beads with Marian rosaries. 

As the Philippines began to take on Western ways, religion became more than simply a devotion but a way to go up in society. Catholicism signalled to others that you had a more affluent European manner, so it came as no surprise that crucifixes and rosaries were now worn outwardly as part of one’s dress, much like how precolonial jewelry was once used to show affiliations.

Rosaries, in particular, had become one of the most fashionable pieces to carry, coming in a variety of natural materials such as wood, seeds, pearls, coral, tortoise shell, and even coconut husk. The earliest use of metal was found in rosaries where just the paternoster beads were made of gold. According to jewelry historian, Ramon Villegas, these beads came in “a filigree technique, which used some kind of spool of frame to guide needle-like instruments in the looping and twirling of fine thread-like wire, giving these beads their name—tamborin, from tambour, the frame used in the needlework.”

The popularity of tamborin beads soon gave rise to rosaries made entirely of gold or silver, with reliquary pendants that often carried beautiful emblems or relics of Saints. The necklaces were made so ornately that they served both a religious and decorative purpose, that they later took on a more ornamental focus. More women and even some men preferred to wear this as jewelry, often choosing aesthetics over the right number of rosary beads. 

Filipino artisans were quick to respond to this, creating even more intricate designs that drew from the many Asian influences in the region, and matching it with a European flavor. While the original filigree design remained popular, local artists explored different techniques such as the use of repousse to create spherical beads adorned with granulations and to design beads inspired by such fruits as the starfruit (lakambini), sugar-apple (atis), and uniquely enough, pomegranates, which are not endemic to the Philippines. 

With so many varieties of beads, it is interesting to note that Filipinos usually wore an odd mix of designs together. More than it being an aesthetic choice, Filipinos saw gold tamborine necklaces as a form of inheritance—one that you could easily divide bead by bead among your children. Thus, having a range of beads spoke of one’s status, especially if you inherited much older ones that are characterized by a natural dark gold finish.

Today, tamborines remain a legacy; an heirloom that is passed down from generation to generation. They are proof of our rich history, well before the arrival of the Spaniards. Indeed, the jewelry has seen and been part of many cultural changes—even now, as we find more Filipinos embracing and preserving our traditions, and finding modern ways to wear the tamborine. But always, no matter the evolution, each bead carries in it the same passion, belief, and devotion that makes it an icon of Philippine heritage.

Sources:

Is your vintage ‘tamborin’ real or not? “The Manila Times”. September 27, 2014.

Villegas, Ramon N. “Kayamanan: The Philippine Jewelry Tradition”. January 1, 1983.


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