Jewellery making in Sri Lanka is an ancient craft which has been in practice for centuries. Traditional Sri Lankan jewellery was made of silver, which was the preferred choice due to its natural appearance against the somewhat flashy opulence of gold. Silver jewellery created by Kandyan artisans are known for their richness in concept. Crafted for generations, they are devoid of fancy gilding with red and green stones being the common colours that were used. Agasti a derivative of Agate was and still is a popular stone used by jewellers in Kandy in making Kandyan era jewellery. And it's origins date back to the time of kings and queens and continues to hold a special place among traditional Sri Lankan jewellery.
Steeped in royalty
Back in the day Agasti jewellery was handmade to order for the royal families and aristrocacy, and was regarded as symbols of prosperity, wealth and nobility. Such was its exclusivity, that only women born to these familes could wear the intricately designed jewellery, and the designing of Agasti jewellery was entrusted to members of a particular caste. Referred to as "filigree jewellery" in the olden day due to its intricacy, families continue to protect and adorn pieces of agasti as heirlooms. However, agasti is no longer limited to Kandyans or upcountry brides; it is commonly worn by many as costume jewellery along with modern clothing as well.
The stones hewn out of agate, render various shades of orange. The value of the jewellery lies not so much in the stone itself but in the handcrafted finesse and intricacy of the designs. A typical set of includes a necklace, earrings and two bangles which usually passed down through generations from mother to daughter as a family heirloom. Pieces also include pendants, earrings, sari pins, hair pins and a "hawadi", a piece of jewellery similar to a hip chain worn at the waist of a woman dressed in a Kandyan saree. The pride of place given to Kanydan jewellery is emphasised at Kandyan weddings where the bride in her traditional finery, includes seven necklaces. Among them is an agasti necklace called the "diga maalaya" meaning long necklace, which actually falls below the waist of the bride.
The older craftsmen of Kandy have preserved the original designs that were popular during the Kandy Period. The traditional occupation of jewellery making in the Kandyan provinces continues to be retained with the father training his offspring on the finer details of designing jewellery. Making these dainty pieces is a demanding process, where massive bars of silver were heated in a kiln, and manually beaten to fineness in order to achieve a level of flexibility. Molten silver is poured into a mould and shaped and pulled until it takes the form of a thin silver wire. Flowers and other filgree are created with short pieces of silver wires and are made to hold agasti stones. The commonly used agate is orange and brown, generally in a long chain up to the waist. Agasti beads are strung at intervals along a chain sometimes interspersed with seeds. This difficult process has been replaced by machines, enabling the new generation of silversmiths to experiment with and introduce new features to the ancient designs.