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Quest for the Exotic Keeps Collector Going, From San Diego to Timbuktu

July 21, 1986|KAREN KENYON

SAN DIEGO — Incense weaves through the air in Bovis Bead Co. Though it is 1986, Gaslamp Quarter, inside the narrow shop exotic ancient cultures fairly hum in the beads and folk art Pierre Bovis has collected from all over the world.

Moroccan wedding hats (dark caps with long strands of twisted yarn) and masks from New Guinea and Africa cover high walls near the entrance. In glass cases on each side are antique Chinese puppets, Tuareg metal crosses from Nigeria (given by fathers to sons to ensure burial) and Egyptian mummy beads from 1500 BC.

To discover some of these rare artifacts, Bovis has been on adventures even Indiana Jones might envy. He has traveled to Nepal, Egypt, Kashmir, India, China, Australia, New Guinea and other places.

Once in the country of his destination, Bovis takes a horse, camel, jeep, boat or train--"whatever it takes"--to reach the remote areas where he meets with tribal or village leaders and barters for rare objects and beads.

Not long ago, to satisfy his passion for beads and primitive art, he traveled to the royal kingdom of Bhutan, high in the Himalayas. He hired a guide and set out by van as far as the road went, then the two went by horse to the village of Pahnhangj, not ordinarily open to foreigners (Bovis was able to obtain a permit).

"In this village," he said, "they had probably seen only 50 whites in their lives. Your passport is kept as you go into the area, and if you have long hair it is cut or a beard is shaved."

Bovis and the guide-interpreter went to the house of the man he would trade with.

"It is an all-day process," he said, explaining that in such cultures trading is a social situation. "The bartering is done while drinking tea with butter. You don't say, 'I want two of this.'

"I was able to trade 25 large Kingman turquoise nuggets, a hunting knife, Levi's and a digital watch for a bow and quiver with four arrows and for Mahla (prayer) beads made of conch shell and coral.

"Many members of the village came to the outside of the mud-and-wood adobe-like hut to listen. The people were all Tibetan Buddhists, and all carried prayer beads. The men wore dresses to their ankles and boots with pointed toes. I wore Western boots and jeans. When we came out, they all came up to touch me. They were stroking my hair and shirt. It was a very friendly gesture."

On another journey, this time to Morocco, Bovis obtained the two wedding hats and a large amber-and-metal bead necklace after attending a wedding. The necklace, he said, is 50 to 100 years old and is tribal art, passed on in the female line. He had to wait a respectable time, of course, to trade for the items.

Another trip to Morocco is planned for September or October, in which Bovis and his wife, Shirley, will cross the Sahara to Timbuktu by camel caravan.

"It will take 40 days to cross," he said, and "it's not civilized. You have to dress in clothing like those who live in the desert, carry weapons because it is dangerous, and blacken your face. But that's when you get the good stuff.

"They don't want money there. Money doesn't count. It's strictly trade. I'll take turquoise, watches, Levi's and cowboy boots to trade. You have to realize, too, that there is no road, no electricity, no water."

Collecting beads isn't always so rough. Bovis has fashion beads (as opposed to collector beads) that he orders from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Italy, Japan, Germany and England. He is sole distributor for the United States, Canada and Mexico for the last French factory producing seed, crow and pony beads. Used in traditional American Indian beadwork, these beads were originally brought by traders and explorers from Europe.

Bovis is, through this factory, reproducing the complete color spectrum of the beads.

"There were 18 colors created from 1800 to 1900," he said, "but none after World War I. We do eight sizes of each color, 500 kilos of each size."

He conducts a large wholesale business in these beads, with trading posts and fashion designers. He ships two to three tons of beads every few months from this factory.

Except for the rarest beads, they are counted by the kilos--42,000 beads to a kilo--and there are hundreds of kilos in Bovis' shop.

American Indian artifacts hang near the back of the shop. A buffalo skull is over the back door, with a beaded turtle and lizard container on each side, from the Cheyenne tribe.

"Those are containers from around 1890 which hold umbilical cords," Bovis said. "The baby's cord is cut and dried in the sun. When grown, the warrior wears the container on his belt, and the female keeps hers in her tepee. It is a sign of life and protection."

In some areas, the custom is still followed, he said.

"I even had my own daughters' umbilical cords saved, and dried, and had an Indian lady make containers for them," he said.

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