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Glittering Private Indulgences Turn Into Exotic Discoveries

December 30, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

For more than 20 years, Jackie Little has hunted for ancient treasures in the tiny shops of Thailand, Indonesia, India and the Philippines.

Several times a year she prowls the shopping districts of exotic ports, then loads her bags with a bounty of silver anklets, brass necklaces, shell bracelets and tribal beads and returns home to Costa Mesa.

At first the collections were simply Little's private indulgence. The burnished medallions and hand-carved silver reflected volumes of foreign history and family life. The glass beads dating back to 200 BC became her link to earlier cultures. The more she collected the more she learned of other people and their ways. Soon some of the walls of her home were covered with beads and ancient jewelry.

"I've always been drawn to jewelry with a history behind it," she says. "I've never been a little-gold-chain person."

Now, however, the obsession is mostly business.

Hundreds of Little's treasures can be seen and bought at a sparkling-white, museum-like store called Discoveries in Tustin. Her ancient necklaces hang on walls near handmade contemporary rings and earrings. Her enormous old silver bracelets are displayed next to new Indian silver, and many of her beaded pieces are displayed near sculptured lapidary rings and fossils and shells. The shop in Enderle Center on 17th Street, owned by Tena Broderhausen, provides a glistening backdrop for treasures old and new.

For Little, the store has helped transform an expensive hobby into a career. But in the early days, Little used to shop only for herself and her friends while accompanying her husband on business trips. Now she leaves him at home while pursuing her passion for antique jewelry.

"I used to go over to Thailand or someplace and just shop and shop," she says. "People began to want everything I'd bring back. So eventually I started selling. Now it's beyond the neighborhood . . . and out of control."

Dressed in a red and yellow, 19th-Century silk coat accented by four enormous antique silver Chinese bracelets and a 150-year-old silver necklace that used to adorn the neck of a maharajah's horse, Little is a walking advertisement for the artistry of ancient jewelry.

The 61-year-old grandmother says she loves--and has a hard time parting with--everything she chooses: "I've always worn my pieces. And I've always loved jewelry. It was a congenital defect. I grew up wanting pretty things."

What are her favorites, among the 11th-Century crystal beads from Thailand, the antique silver anklets, necklaces and bracelets from China and the weighty silver belts from India?

"Everything that's big and silver," she says without hesitating. "A lot of people wear gold because it says rich. But to me rich is heritage and history. We all have our ideas on what status is, and my idea of status is something old and tattered from India."

Little says it takes her days to pore over the bins of antique beads and silver bracelets shown to her by dealers. She doesn't go into the villages on her trips but instead works with a handful of merchants who buy from rural families.

"It takes at least 2 full days at each store, and I might buy 50 or 60 pieces or just one or two," she says.

Little declined to discuss the prices she pays overseas but did say that all the metals are weighed and sold to her by the gram. Prices vary greatly from country to country.

Little, who is president of the Los Angeles Bead Society, which gives research grants for the study of beads, is an expert in the ancient glass baubles that used to be traded as money and were the sole source of wealth for some families.

"People were wearing beads before they were wearing clothes," Little says. "Beads have always been treasures for someone. They've always been a part of the family jewels and always been status symbols."

Ranging in price from $25 for a pair of earrings to $2,500 for a silver belt, Little's antique jewelry hails primarily from Southeast Asia. The $2,500 piece is a rare antique silver belt with gold coins and filigree from India. Indian silver anklets extended to make necklaces cost about $200 and up.

A hunter's tribal necklace that looks like a feather boa of bear claws--the hunter wore a claw for every bear he killed, Little says--has rows of glass beads and shells intermingled with claws and costs $459.

Little buys and sells a small amount of antique ivory and shell jewelry, but most of her pieces are beads or silver.

"Silver is worn strictly in the country" throughout Southeast Asia, Little says. "And the women wear all their wealth on their bodies. But in the city, the people wouldn't be caught dead with silver. They want gold."

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