Sunday, August 18, 2013

Count Your Blessings - Prayer Beads

Since Friday evenings are free at the Rubin Museum on West 17th Street and since Jean was obsessed with seeing the prayer beads exhibit, we decided to check it out. Wanting to research whether wearing her large yellow faux amber prayer beads as a necklace was a no-no, Jean was greatly relieved to learn that so doing was in fact an imperial habit. Here's a closeup of her beads from the Columbus Avenue Flea Market.  (Valerie's huge white ceramic beads, made by Peter Lane, a wonderful potter, caused her no such worry.  If she and Peter had talked about it, they might have laughingly called these the I Don't Have a Prayer beads.)

In China, prayer beads transcended Buddhist context to incorporate Daoist and even mundane aspects of use. During the Ming period (1368-1644), they were treated as aesthetic objects, emphasizing elegance over religious symbolism. The Qing period (1644-1912) saw development of secular "court beads", delineating certain materials for exclusive use in the royal beads which were worn by the emperor as a necklace.

Just before we entered the show, we met Mahfood (we didn't ask him to spell his name, so we're hoping we got this right).  Mahfood is an aspiring blogger and style icon-in-the-making who also happens to work at the museum. Check the hair!

Back to the show: Prayer beads were made in a wide variety of materials, some of which enhanced or multiplied the value of the prayer. These beautiful beads fashioned from Lithocarpus seeds were made in China in the 20th century.

One of our favorites was this set made from snake spine and conch shell with a metal counter (for tracking how many prayers the user clocked in a session).  It reminded Jean of childhood talismans from her dad.

Jean's snake rattles, probably from two different specimens, were handed down from her dad and are over 85 years old. Her dad grew up on a wheat farm in Washington state back in the 1920s in the days of horse-drawn combines. Rattlers weren't killed for sport but rather only when they curled up in farm equipment or barns and menaced people or horses. Quite a far cry from 21st century Manhattan, yes?

These 18th century Japanese walnut, ivory and fiber prayer beads look quite skull-like.

Speaking of skulls, these Tibetan 18th or 19th century prayer beads are made from bones from human craniums.  We had to do a little research on this, since Americans usually think of shrunken heads or cannibalism or some form of violence when confronted with human heads as ornaments.  In fact, we learned that Tibetan monks had 'sky burials', leaving bodies to be recycled (shall we say) by local vultures.  The use of bits of skulls for prayer beads served to underscore the evanescence of life.

These Korean 20th century beads are made of wood carved as skulls.

We have to show you this entire display case to give you an idea of the size of the next two sets of prayer beads.   That's one set of beads all along the bottom of the case, and another set at the extreme right.

This 19th century set of Japanese prayer beads is punctuated by five Buddhist saints, each encased in an elegant plum sized brass bead.

These 20th century Japanese beads, probably made of zelkova, a dense wood that is difficult to carve, were labeled penance prayer beads.  The wall text explained that differently arranged and numbered prayer beads have different purposes. Pacification, increase, power and 'wrathful practices' were among the different purposes named, and the text indicated that practitioners of Buddhism would be able to identify which beads were for which purposes.  Materials used also help identify these purposes.  For some additional reading on this click here.

These undated Tibetan beads are made of conch shell.

Fossilized shells can be found in the landlocked Himalayas, which were under water millions of years ago.  The conch has important symbolism in Buddhism, so it is not surprising they were used in prayer beads.  Conch shells might have been brought to Tibet from India, but in any case were not readily available, like wood or seeds, and were held in high esteem.  The close up below shows that the conch beads were very dense, unlike most of the conch shells one might find on beaches.  These would have had to come from large old conch shells.

This set of prayer beads is said to be early 19th century Tibetan.  Primarily of ivory, it also has some coral and silver.  The largest bead is referred to as the 'guru' bead, and marks the beginning or end of the recitation, so the meditator can keep track of the prayer cycle.

These beads are also Tibetan, but only date to the 1970s.

To untutored eyes (ours, for example), these look old, given their patina, and the care that was taken to embed bits of shell and turquoise embedded all around their centers.

At the end of the exhibition, we stopped into K2 Serai, the lounge on the Museum's first floor which features interesting cocktails, an eclectic menu, and on Friday nights, a crowd, a DJ and a film on the lower level. That evening, Johnny Belinda was the movie selection. Here's our barista muddling fresh basil for Valerie's drink. We were captivated, thinking in the relative darkness that she was using a fresh carrot. How organic! Turned out she was using a painted wooden pestle. The flavor was marvelous.

The finished products - in bell jars.  LOL!

Bell jars -- with salt rims!

We lassoed a willing employee to take a picture of us together, and had to ask her for a second shot to make sure she got the hats in.  Notice -ahem - that our hats match our beads!

The tables encircle the atrium, so there is a nice sense of space, as well as a view of the exhibition.  As we looked down, we noticed that the very largest set of beads had been hung in the center of the atrium.  The museum was open till 10pm, and we wound up closing the place down.

Walking east on 17th Street to the subway, we passed a wonderful store called Beads of Paradise with a window chock full of prayer beads, incense burners, Buddha figures and assorted statuary. Note the skull beads just to the left of the golden statue.

Here's another shot of the colorful window display. (Luckily for our personal bottom lines, the store was closed for the night!)

Inspired by what she'd seen, Jean fashioned her own skull prayer beads from the wonderful erasers purchased in the museum store. Now, if she can just find a drill and silk cord!

What We're Wearing:

Jean is wearing a Missoni top, Issey Miyake dress, Urban Outfitters turban, flea market prayer beads, vintage bakelite bracelets and rings, Issey Miyake Pleats Please drawstring backpack and DIY customized Dansko platform clogs.

Valerie is wearing a vintage Schiaparelli hat, plastic earrings from the flea market, Peter Lane Clay beads, unlabeled bolero jacket, bustier by H&M, felt bracelet from Etsy, pants by APOC (Issey Miyake), sandals by Blowfish.


  1. I find these prayer beads fascinating - I especially like the ones carved from the walnuts that look very much like skulls, and the snake spine one. Thanks for the report on this exhibit!

    Jean, you're wearing so much colour!! I love it! As do I love Valerie's Schiaparelli hat and gumball-sized beads. Can't wait to see you two in the fall!

  2. A very interesting exhibit! It made me appreciate my prayer bead bracelets that I purchased in NY last fall.

    Your hats do match you beads with perfection!

  3. You two have so much fun. Your writing and individual dressing style is just right up my alley. And the most love to have your cocktails after a hard day at the blogging! Love it!

  4. OMG what a pretty Prayer Beads. This is my first time to this site but my friend has told me about your work and you are very very good!
    Bead bracelets