Perfect Rings: Dimbo of Cenderawasih Bay

Glass Earrings (Dimbo), 19th Century
Waropen culture; Cenderawasih (Geelvink) Bay, Papua Province, Indonesia, Melanesia
Glass
2017.8.1-.5
Bowers Museum Purchase
Though we may think of it now as an isolated, inaccessible part of the world, New Guinea has always been rich in organic and mineral resources; the peoples of its coasts welcome partners to commerce. Birds of paradise feathers, spices, aromatic woods, and many more valuable items bought the northern coast of New Guinea’s entry into a trading network which has existed for at least 5000 years. This post examines five recently acquired teardrop-shaped earrings or dimbo as they are known in the native Waropen language of the eastern coast of Indonesian New Guinea’s Cenderawasih Bay, and discusses how they fit into this larger trading context.
Dong Son bracelets made from bronze. Similar Dong Son glass earrings have the same shape 
and are at least as old. From the collections of the Vietnam National Museum of History. 
Within the greater region, glass has been produced similarly to these earrings at least since the turn of the 6thCentury BC when the Dong Son culture of Vietnam first made their own glass and bronze earrings, bracelets, and bangles. Even these two and a half millennia old objects tended to have the same triangular cross-section which we can still see prominently today in four of these five earrings. Though the Dong Son were likely also responsible for the bronze objects to reach the northwest coast of New Guinea, there is no conclusive archaeological evidence that their glassworks ever directly traveled to the northwest coast of New Guinea during this period.
The Malay Archipelago, one of the many names for the archipelago between Indochina and Australia.
The passage of time saw a series of boom and bust cycles for various trade goods throughout the Southeast Asian Archipelago. Changing tastes in India and Indonesia proliferated or throttled the spread of various commodities. For some stretches little trade took place at all. Whatever the exact cause, the first glass earrings to make their way to the Waropen Coast were hailed as Javanese and arrived in the 13th Century with Malay traders, the latter distinction being broad enough to be entirely unhelpful in tracing the root of the earrings. What is important though, is that the earrings which being glass would themselves last almost indefinitely, had an aesthetically minimalistic appeal which rang as true in the 13th Century among the people of Cenderawasih Bay and other points along New Guinea’s north coast as they did for the Dong Son 1700 years prior. Even today, they are unmistakably beautiful, making it no wonder why they were produced and reproduced prolifically for such a long period of time.
Note the scalloping around the periphery of  2017.18.1.
This feature likely means it was made from a bottle.
In the 19th Century Dutch traders came to know the earrings by their heavy trade holdings in the region under the umbrella of the Dutch East India Company and later as colonial rulers of the region. The popularity of the earrings throughout the Dutch colonies eventually led them to be manufactured in the Netherlands, presumably for European markets, though their European production was never successful. In any case, in the 19thCentury the people of the northwest coast of New Guinea acquired the technology required to melt down and reshape glass themselves. Sources from the period describe exchanges of bows and arrows for empty glass bottles which were melted down to make dimbo. The scalloping on the clear glass earring is likely the result of ridging around the base of a bottle, indicating that it was made in or after the 19th Century.
It is important to know why dimbo were so sought after by the Waropen people, as for hundreds of years they could only be acquired with some difficulty by trade. As is told in the Bowers Museum’s Spirits and Headhunters: Art of the Pacific Islands exhibition, hundreds if not thousands of different non-standardized currencies are used throughout Oceania. Dimbo were one of these many currency items, and were specifically traded to pay bride prices, the groom-to-bride version of a dowry still practiced throughout New Guinea and many parts of the world to this day.
Alternate view of 2017.8.1-.5.
In western culture, we tend to think of change as linear, but we also see certain trends repeated as cycles. This variety of triangularly-sectioned earrings have had the same basic design in Southeast Asia and Oceania for at least 2500 years, however they saw a different usage in New Guinea where they were used to pay bride prices. This duality makes them an excellent synthesis of the cyclical and linear tendencies we see in objects throughout the region. With New Guinea now rapidly modernizing, the circle could be irreversibly broken, just as teardrop-shaped dimbomay seem to be fractured when compared to the perfectly round earrings of the Dong Son.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Saturday, 22 February 2020

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