Modern 'new' dzi beads made from etched agate
|Literal meaning||heaven pearls|
Dzi bead (Tib. གཟི།; pronounced "zee"; alternative spelling: gzi) is a type of stone bead of uncertain origin worn as part of a necklace and sometimes as a bracelet. In several Asian cultures, including that of Tibet, the bead is considered to provide positive spiritual benefit. These beads are generally prized as protective amulets and are sometimes ground up into a powder to be used in traditional Tibetan medicine. Beads subject to this process have small "dig marks" where a portion of the bead has been scraped or shaved away to be ground into the medicine.
The most highly prized dzi beads are those of ancient age, made of natural agate. It is a mystery were where these beads originated. While the traditional, ancient-style beads are greatly preferred, new modern-made dzi are gaining popularity amongst Tibetans.
Dzi stones are made from agate, and may have decorative symbols composed of circles, ovals, squares, waves or zig zags, stripes, lines, diamonds, dots, and various other archetypal and symbolic patterns. Colors mainly range from brown to black, with the pattern usually in ivory white. Dzi beads can appear in different colours, shapes, and sizes; the surface is usually smooth and waxy, presumably from wear over a long period of time.
Sometimes the natural patterns (usually "layered" swirls) of the agate can be seen underneath or behind the decorative symbols and designs, and sometimes not.
. Another desirable effect is something called "Nāga skin" which refers to tiny circular weathering marks on the surface of the bead that resemble scales. Some dzi beads are simply polished agate, with only the agate's natural patterning as decoration.
The number of "eyes" on the stone is considered significant. These are the circular dot (eye-like) designs, and depending on their number and arrangement, they represent different things. The highest number of eyes on ancient dzi is twelve. One thirteen-eye bead has been reported from a Taiwanese collector but its genuineness has not been confirmed; therefore anything having more than twelve eyes is considered non-traditional. Any accompanying story or benefit tale is assumed to be fake as well, and a mere marketing strategy for the lucrative feng shui item market.
Dzi stones made their first appearance between 2000 and 1000 BC, in ancient India: a few hundred thousand were supposedly brought back by Tibetan soldiers from Persia or ancient Tajikistan during a raid. Fear of the “evil eye” was taken very seriously by these people, so whoever made the dzi created talismans with “eyes” on them as a “fight fire with fire” form of protection. Artisans used agate as the base stone and then added lines and shapes using ancient methods that are still not completely understood, possibly including darkening with plant sugars and heat, bleaching and white line etching with natron, and protecting certain areas with grease, clay, wax or a similar substance. After the bead was decorated the artisan would drill the hole length-wise which was arduous work done with a bow drill. The smoothness and absence of cracks in the agates imply that the heating and bleaching processes took place at a high altitude.
Although the geographic origin of dzi beads is uncertain, it is accepted that they are now called "Tibetan beads," just like "Tibetan coral," which also came to Tibet from elsewhere. Tibetans cherish these beads and consider them hereditary gems. In this way they have survived thousands of years, being worn by hundreds of individual people. Dzi are found primarily in Tibet, but also in neighbouring Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh and Sikkim.
Sometimes shepherds and farmers pick them up in the grasslands or while cultivating fields. Because some dzi are found on the ground, some Tibetans don't believe they are man-made.
Since knowledge of the bead is derived from several differing oral traditions, the beads have provoked controversy regarding their source, their method of manufacture and even their precise definition. In Tibetan culture these beads are believed to attract local protectors, dharmapalas or deities or maybe beneficial ghosts, ancestors or even bodhisattvas. Because of this, dzi beads are always treated with respect.
Due to the unknown origin of these beads and the high demand for them, there has been recent reproduction of dzi beads in Asia. The first (and best) replica dzi beads came from Taiwan during the 1990s. China has also produced some good-quality dzi beads over the last three years.[when?] However, the number of modern dzi that would be accepted as beautiful by the Tibetan community is very small, making these beads highly desirable.
A nice dzi should be made of good quality agate with the cutting, drilling and decorating taking many days. Modern methods and technology such as lasers, modern sugars and chemicals, and vacuum chambers can produce very good results. The waxy appearance is still desirable but is sometimes lacking. Some especially well-made new dzi are accepted by Tibetans because it is safe to wear them in public since they look like ancient dzi. Some[who?] claim the new dzi work as well as the old ones; others believe the protective energies of ancient dzi can move into a new dzi, if the stone is of the same quality or better and the two beads are kept together or when binding rituals are performed.
Dzi are also popular in China, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore. Genuine ancient dzi are too expensive for most Tibetans; those who have not owned dzi for generations can no longer afford to buy them. Some of the new dzi have become highly collectible resulting in much higher prices. As was true in ancient days, only a handful of artisans know how to make superior beads today. Less than a dozen people are manufacturing truly high-quality and beautiful beads; not much is known about who they are or where their workshops are.
With a few exceptions, new beads don't have the mystic associations of the ancient ones but it is possible to give new dzi similar powers with some time and effort: 1) by taking them to be blessed by a Lama or a Guru; 2) taking them on pilgrimages to holy places, stupas and shrines; and 3) reciting mantras, as well as taking religious vows with them. An advantage of new dzi beads is that they do not carry any of the bad karma of previous owners. To rid a stone of bad energy it should be submerged in saltwater for several hours and then have incense fanned over it. The dzi should be treated with respect from that time on. Sun basking and herbal smudging are also said to purify the beads. Spirit aroma offering and recitation of Cintamani dharani maybe helpful in charging the bead as well.
Mock dzi are created from materials other than agate or chalcedony. They can be of glass, resin, lampwork, wood, plastic, metal, or non-traditional etched stones. They have a long history, some dating back a couple hundred years. The older mock dzi have some collectible value. Some of the resin mock dzi have a filling of lead to add weight. Some people would also call the machine-carved and -drilled, highly polished new dzi "mock dzi." Almost invariably mass-produced, these are available for less than two dollars and are often sold by the strand. The etching on these cheap beads has been done very quickly, and the decorations do not penetrate into the inner core of the bead. These are usually targeted at mainland Chinese customers as lucky feng shui charms.
Market value for ancient beads can easily reach into hundreds of thousands of US dollars - especially for beads with more "eyes." Tiny red cinnabar spots caused by iron inclusion in the agate also increase the value. New etched agate dzi are also highly prized as long as they are well made, contain the traditional patterns, and are made from genuine agate without "dragon skin" or "dragon veins," with a clean, clear look and luster and nicely simulated abrasion signs at the drill holes (these abrasions should slope upward, simulating thousands of years of thread abrasion). New dzi prices range from about ten to two thousand US Dollars, depending on quality and luster. Because of the high value placed on them, Tibetans would typically only part with an authentic dzi bead under very extreme circumstances, such as theft, confiscation by banks or government, or even murder. As a result, many Tibetans have started wearing reproduction dzi in public, out of fear of theft.
Similar to dzi beads are the so-called chung dzi, which have been imported to Tibet since ancient times. These can be plain, naturally banded agate beads, or etched beads (often with black and white striped patterns). Some are carnelians or black agate with thin white etching patterns resembling the back of a turtle, which is an ancient pattern that dates back to the era of the Harappan Indus culture. Ancient Roman agate beads as well as etched Bactrian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Afghan, Yemeni, and Indian agate and carnelian beads made their way into Tibet. All these are considered chung dzi (in Tibetan, "chung" means ordinary or common). Chung dzi are believed to have similar properties to real "eyed" dzi; they are less valuable, but they are highly prized by Tibetans and also considered a variety of dzi.
The antique Pyu and Phumtek beads of Burma are also similar in some ways to dzi: they share some of the dzi bead patterns, but instead of agate, the Phumtek are generally made from petrified opalized palm wood, while Pyu beads are often made of red or orange carnelian with some thin white alkali-etched lines.
- Pattison, Eliot.  (2004). Beautiful Ghost. St Martin Press. ISBN 0-312-27759-8
- http://beadbugle.com/html/etched_beads_and_dzi_beads.html beadbugle
- Ebbinghouse, David and Winsten, Michael (1988). "Tibetan dZi (gZi) Beads". The Tibet Journal 13 (1): pp. 38–56.
- Information about the recognition of ancient dZi beads and modern replicas
- The Legend of Tibetan Dzi Bead