Skip to main content
Blog post main image
  • Karmic Knots: A Tibetan Jeweler’s Journey

    RIGZIN Women celebrates Tibetan women as culture bearers. In Tibetan, rigzin refers to an individual steeped in traditional knowledge. In this ongoing series, RIGZIN Women recount, in their own words, how they sustain their heritage and their livelihoods.

    My name is Zanta, and I am a jeweler. I grew up in Mawo, a village in Sichuan province. In my community, we speak a language called Rmash, which Tibetans from other communities cannot understand. We don’t note birthdates in my village, so I’m not sure how old I am. I say that I’m in my forties, but all I know is that I was born in the winter during the year of the cow.

    I’m from a community of herders and farmers. We raise yaks and grow crops like corn, barley, buckwheat, and potatoes. It’s hard work. The problem is that we can’t make a living, so young people often leave the village to earn a living in the city.

    Zanta village
    Zanta descends from the temple toward her village.
    Photo by Jocelyn Ford
    Zanta village
    Zanta gathers firewood near her village with her family.
    Photo by Jocelyn Ford

    I married a boy from the other side of the mountain, but he passed away shortly after our first child was born. He was in his twenties. After his death, I too left the village. As a single mom with a young child, I had to make a living. I went to Beijing and took up street vending.

    At first, I was terrified of the city. I was even nervous about falling off the escalator! I didn’t speak any Chinese—it’s scary to not understand a word of what is being said around you. I had to be brave and make so many life changes. I began to learn Chinese and wear Western clothes. Some daily habits, like showering, washing my face, and brushing my teeth were all new. I still cooked and ate the same foods: noodles, potatoes, bread, and meat. But food tastes different in the city, and I started eating a lot more vegetables. 

    I used to sing all the time, but now I’m forgetting the words to so many folk songs. My son didn’t grow up with these songs, and I’m sad he won’t learn them. Time, I have discovered, really matters to city people. In the village, it is much more flexible.

    Certain traditions have stayed with me. The very first thing I do when I wake up is pray. I made a small altar at home with Buddha statues, photos of lamas and incense—similar to the ones we have in the village. Sometimes I go to the lama temple, too—on Chinese New Year or if there’s a tragedy and I need to pray for someone. Prayer always puts my mind at peace.

    Street vending, surprisingly, led me to jewelry making. Along with a number of other Tibetan vendors, I sold cheap Chinese jewelry on the street. Chinese sellers in the wholesale market tried to sell us jewelry they claimed was Tibetan, but we had never seen anything like it. It didn’t seem very Tibetan to us. Moreover, I didn’t like selling the same items as other Tibetans. Sometimes we would fight if one person sold well and the others didn’t.

    Zanta street vending jewelry
    Zanta sells her jewelry on the street at Beijing’s 798 Art Zone.
    Photo by Jocelyn Ford

    To avoid bickering, I decided to make my own simple but unique bracelets. Then one day, a friend suggested that I design some new pieces of jewelry. She pulled out a piece of paper and began to draw. It was easy for her to draw, but difficult for me to make! I was under so much pressure trying to figure out how to make something beautiful that I could not sleep for nights.

    I had never imagined that I would become a jeweler because in my community, traditionally, men are jewelers. Women weave cloth and embroider garments. Initially, I was nervous about doing “men’s work.” Our village used to have a metalsmith, and we all ordered jewelry from him. We would bring him the raw materials and tell him what we wanted. He is no longer active, so now we must go to another village to order custom jewelry.

    I consider some of my designs “Tibetan” and others not. I do not smith or solder like the metalsmith in my village. Instead, I use traditional knots that are used for functional as well as religious purposes. Recently, I made a necklace with yak bone buttons using the starji knotting technique, which is traditionally used to make a sleeve for an axe. I have also come up with a special twisting technique and created a knot of my own.

    My Tibetan-style jewelry is big, heavy, and traditional-looking. My Han Chinese customers, however, prefer daintier, more contemporary designs. To find a balance, I experiment quite a bit. Recently I was in a forest, and a spray of fronds gave me an idea for a new piece. The contemporary pieces sell well, but my favorite pieces to make are those with sacred symbols like Om or the eternal knot.

    Zanta jewelry
    This piece was inspired by the rubuk plant and the Great Wall of China. When the flower falls off the rubuk, the plant reveals a seedpod. The yak-skull bead design mirrors an open seedpod. Inspired by a trip to the Great Wall, Zanta created a knotting technique to reflect the structure’s twists and turns.
    Photo by Hilary Pan
    Zanta jewelry
    This piece features the dzi stone, also known as the eye of the Buddha. Dzi stones have strong protective powers and shield the wearer against harmful spirits and ghosts.
    Photo by Hilary Pan

    In the beginning, I was hesitant about making sacred motifs, like the hudruru (known as jingangjie in Chinese). Typically, monks tie these knots as they chant a special mantra. The recited mantras bless the knots, which are then given to the devotees at the monastery. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to make these knots, so I called a monk for advice. He said that as long as I have Buddha in my heart and recite mantras while I work, it would be fine. The knots are complicated and take a long time to create. As auspicious symbols, they bring good karma for those who make and wear them. It makes me so happy to think that I’m bringing good karma to myself and to others through my jewelry.

    Jewelry is so much more than an accessory: it serves many functions. The women in my community used to wear a belt with a silver hook called lyezang. Traditionally, women wore them while milking yaks to keep the pail stable and upright. Even though many of us don’t have yaks or cows anymore, we still wear a decorative version for festivals.

    A piece of jewelry can also be a talisman. Different amulets protect us from harm and disease. Coral and turquoise, for example, can ward off evil spirits and illness. If a man has a history of early mortality in his family, he must wear an earring in his left ear to attract the attention of the heavens for protection.

    Zanta jewelry
    On the right is the antique portable shrine known as a Gau. On the left, Zanta’s contemporary gau functions like a locket, which can hold a tiny mantra scroll or scrap of cloth blessed by a lama. The blessings may protect the wearer against anything from bad dreams to harmful diseases.
    Photo by Hilary Pan

    Some men carry a Gau, a tiny portable shrine or charm box. Inside they keep a small object with blessings—like a snipping of hair or clothing from an important lama. If a man needs to sell his gau, he removes the charm and then rubs the gau on his body to absorb all the remaining blessings. After a small ceremony, he can sell it. Nowadays, I don’t know any young men who carry a gau.

    In many traditional households, these ornaments, amulets, and charms are a family’s most prized possessions. For many, jewelry is more important than having a bank account. In fact, it often is the bank account! Traditionally, in order to marry, a man needs a house, and a woman needs jewelry. Family heirlooms are essential to a bride’s dowry.

    What I love most about jewelry is its ability to connect us to our family: our ancestors and our posterity. We inherit some from our parents, and, if we work hard, we can add to our children’s inheritance as well. In some ways, jewelry represents our love for family, for our children.

    I use whatever materials are available to me—once I made a necklace entirely out of clasps, which sold really well. Right now, I can only afford semi-precious stones reconstituted from stone powder. I also use the dzi stone, which has a pattern that looks like the eye of the Buddha. When my business grows, I hope to be able to afford silver, gold, coral, turquoise, and amber.

    Zanta jewelry
    Zanta spins her own wool, sometimes improvising with a potato to spin thread for her jewelry. The potato replaces the heavy wooden head of the spool.
    Photo by Hilary Pan

    I don’t have a typical workday or workplace. I make jewelry at home by myself. In the past, I made it while I was selling on the street. Now I don’t vend as much. I spend more time making jewelry and practicing my Chinese. Recently I have even started giving workshops to college students on how to make knotted bracelets, while talking about Tibetan culture. I sell my work at different events around the city—at international bazaars or at schools. It’s been almost seven years that I have been designing, making, and selling jewelry.

    In Beijing, I discovered who I am. If I had stayed in my village, I never would have started making jewelry. I never would have found my creativity or independence. It makes me so happy to think my jewelry introduces people to Tibetan culture.

    Zanta’s story was translated by filmmaker Jocelyn Ford. Ford’s documentary Nowhere to Call Home features Zanta and her journey from home to Beijing.

    There is no written alphabet for the Rmash language. Transliteration was provided by Tsering Bum, a linguistic scholar of Rmash, who is creating a written alphabet for his mother tongue.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.