In Focus

Man's Necklace (kalabubu)

The Ono Niha are known for two different kinds of necklaces, which are somewhat structurally alike: both types have a largely invisible inner wire core consisting of iron, brass, bronze, or even gold wires. The most well known are the so-called headhunter’s necklaces, kalabubu, typically embellished with pieces of polished coconut shell strung over the wire core. The diameter of these perfectly fit­ted, disklike pieces gradually increases toward the center, so that the thickest section of the necklace always hangs above the chest of its wearer. The kalabubu typically did not have a clasp, but was made large enough in diameter so that its owner could effortlessly pull it over his head.

The second type of necklace, nifatali-tali, was worn equally by men and women. Wearing these woven necklaces was reserved for members of the noble class, or si’ulu. The thickness and workman­ship of the woven wire and the composition of metals in these necklaces reflected a family’s wealth. Nifatali-tali necklaces can be made of iron, bronze, silver, and gold. This kind of necklace has a considerably smaller diameter and therefore a clasp at the narrow­est ends. Sometimes this clasp is only a hook, or it may also take the form of a pyramid-shaped button, or a specifically produced concave button with a central breastlike elevation. The Dallas necklace is shaped like a common kalabubu, but it has a clasp like a nifatali-tali. The lustrous gold emphasizes its noble pedigree.

With this one-of-a-kind kalabubu, an inner core made of brass is wound with two interwoven brass wires. Only two small sections of this substructure are exposed next to a round clasp of solid gold. Thirteen thin cas­ings made of wood, which are sheathed in beaten sheet gold, are strung over the core of the necklace. The gold surface is decorated with a densely embossed leaf pattern. Seven of the casings have an embossed surface, into which four to six nearly equal-sized rhombuses are cut. The dark wood of the casings contrasts strik­ingly with the gold as the raised wooden shapes emerge from these incisions.

Very few such necklaces with wooden and gold casings are rep­resented in collections or found in historical photographs. Even if the kalabubu looks more like a badge of rank (nifatali-tali) from its construction and mode of production, it must nevertheless be viewed as an emblem for a successful headhunter.

In many societies, wearing special jewelry was associated with extensive rules and regulations. Wearing a kalabubu was also sub­ject to such rules of tradition and common law, also known as adat. In the pre-Christian era, a young nobleman of the Ono Niha could acquire the right to wear a kalabubu once he had taken part in a successful headhunting raid. Only then did he become a recognized member of the adult world and only then was he marriageable.

Adapted from

Achim Sibeth, "Man's necklace (kalabubu)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 54.