Ever since I was a child I’ve always been fascinated by history, mythology, and ancient cultures. Growing up, I had an intense interest in everything ancient Egyptian, and as I got older that interest broadened to include just about every period in Western history. It never really occurred to me that the Philippines had its own rich history before we were colonised.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I really started to take an interest in Filipino culture and history. I was working on my final project for my Masters in product design at Domus Academy at the time, and maybe it was the homesickness rearing its head but I wanted to design a product that was inspired by Filipino culture. I researched ethnic fabrics and ceramics, but eventually I had to abandon that idea because it didn’t fit my final design concept. (If you’re curious, it was a set of intelligent food ware that you can read about here.) The idea of incorporating Filipino culture into my designs never entirely left my head, but it wasn’t until I started my jewelry line that I was finally able to truly do so.
Photos from our editorial shoot, Every Tribe.
I guess the reason I was, and still am, so fixated on the pre-Hispanic era is because a college professor of mine once told me that the Philippines doesn’t have its own unique aesthetic, that Filipino design is nothing more than copies of that of our colonisers’. And I just don’t believe that’s true. (And even if it was, we’ve still managed to take that hodgepodge of cultures to create something that’s truly our own, but that’s an argument for another day.)
So with that in mind, I thew myself into my research by visiting museums around Cebu and Manila, and reading books and articles on precolonial and early Spanish-era history. What I found was incredible! Ancient gods and goddesses, warrior queens, Visayan pirates, headhunting tribes, the list goes on and I’ve barely scratched the surface! There’s so much to share, but let’s just say the plethora of myths, traditions, and stories of our ancestors would have definitely blown my Egypt-obsessed mind.
(Left) Illustrations of pre-colonial Visayan nobles from the Boxer Codex; (right) "Princess Urduja" by Fernando Amorsolo. Urduja was a legendary warrior and ruler of Pangasinan in the 14th century.
It was quite a challenge to choose just one aspect of ancient Filipino culture to interpret into a single jewelry collection, but I decided to continue the Amica collection’s theme of patterns and went on from there. I looked into motifs used in ethnic weaves and embroidery, and eventually that led me to the ancient Visayan tradition of batuk, or ritual tattooing. The practice of tattooing one’s body has a long, rich history in our country. Most people in ancient Philippine society, particularly in the Visayas region, were adorned with tattoos. In fact when the Spaniards first came to the Visayas, they called the people Pintados, meaning “painted ones”, because of their heavily tattooed bodies. The tattoos themselves were motifs inspired by nature. For men these motifs were seen as symbols of bravery and fierceness in battle, and for women these were symbols of beauty and fertility.
(Left) Illustraion of Pintados warriors of the Visayas; (center) 17th century etching depicting "The Painted Prince" Jeoly, a Filipino slave who was captured and brought to England to serve as an attraction or curiosity because of his tattoos; (right) Whang-Od, the oldest living ritual tatooist in the Philippines, © Jake Verzosa.
When I was working on the Pintados collection, I knew I wanted to evoke the bold, warrior-like character of traditional tattoos but I also didn’t want to appropriate any symbols that may be considered sacred by our tribes. In the end I stylised some of the more common motifs and translated these into shell inlay. We used white kabebe and blacklip shells to further evoke the tattoo aesthetic.
I also paid close attention to the placement of tattoo motifs on the body and reflected these in our jewelry. Some of the motifs inspired by scales or mountain ranges were typically placed on the arms and hands, so in this collection they were interpreted as cuffs and hand chains. The sun and flower motifs were placed on the chest and face, so these were likewise interpreted as chokers and earrings.
Ritual tattooing, like most of our ancient way of life, was largely wiped out during the Spanish colonial era except in the most remote parts of the country where the tradition lives on. Both local and international interest in traditional batuk have risen over the years. The women of the Kalinga tribe in the Cordillera region of Luzon, led by the oldest living mambabatok (ritual tattooist), Whang-Od, are helping to keep this cultural heritage alive.
The Pintados collection has so far been the most personal project for me as a jewelry designer. The entire journey of creating this collection, a culmination of two years worth of research and design development, has given me the opportunity to discover and reflect on what it means to be Filipino. It’s also given me an idea of the direction I want to take the brand in the future: a continuing exploration of Philippine history and cultural heritage where we can share our people’s stories with the rest of the world.