There are two interesting qualities about coins that have held true throughout history but are often overlooked: Coins have come in all sorts of interesting shapes and sizes—this is still true today—and, ultimately, what we do with our coins is in the hands of the beholder.
For collectors and investors, this second fact may seem quite foreign. What on Earth would someone do with coins other than spend them or collect them as historical artifacts? The answers offer an intriguing glimpse into the great diversity of the world’s cultures and the boundless creativity of the human mind.
One Man’s Coin Is Another’s . . . ?
There are many examples in history, especially in ancient or medieval times, where coins from one locale were repurposed for entirely different uses by people from another land. The most common example of this is fashioning a gold or silver coin into jewelry. Rather than melt down the coin and fabricate an entirely new item, artists or jewelers often incorporated the coins themselves into necklaces or bezels worn around the neck, or even pins that clasped onto a hat or clothing. In addition to embedding gold coins in lockets, it was not uncommon in the 19th century and even and early-20th century for coins to be incorporated into cuff links or belt buckles by wealthy fashionistas.
Similarly, Arab traders from the 17th century onward were known to convert the popular Maria Theresa silver thaler, Austria’s popular trade coin, into jewelry. In addition to the coin’s high silver purity (which made the material easier to work with), these merchants apparently took a liking to the eponymous empress’s portrait on the coin. Today, innovative craftsman have even made a cottage industry out of transforming silver dollars and other small silver coins into rings. Remarkably, the rings usually preserve the design features of the original coin, creating an eye-pleasing kind of commemorative jewelry.
But all of this artwork is only for aesthetic purposes. What about using coins in an altogether different functional manner?
It appears this is precisely what the Native American people of Alaska and Western Canada known as the Tlingit did with medieval Chinese coins. The Tlingit have a distinctive cultural artwork that turned everyday items into fantastic carvings and totem poles, incorporating bright reds and blues in their iconography. They were likewise resourceful in using mundane items like animal horns or word to craft artistic yet useful tools, adornments, and dwellings.
According to the blog Primal Tek, these Chinese coins “were obtained from maritime merchants who traded the coins for Tlingit animal skins which they then exchanged with the Chinese for tea, silk and porcelain.” The coins primarily came from the Qing Dynasty, especially from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Tlingit warriors would sew the heavy brass and bronze coins (which had square holes at the center) into their attire using interlocking patterns in a manner similar to chain mail. The garments also carried ceremonial significance in other contexts, and the Tlingit (and their adversaries) purportedly believed such armor was impervious to bullets.
Moreover, Primal Tek goes on to reinforce the point about coins being put to different uses than they were originally intended:
“Old Chinese coins have historically been used for a number of purposes other than currency. The Chinese used them as good luck charms, ground them up for use in traditional Chinese medicine, and used them to predict the future. The Tlingit, an indigenous people living on another continent, discovered yet another use for these coins as body armor.”
Aside from giving the Tlingit a sort of mythic advantage over Russian troops in battle, this “coin armor” is a captivating example of indigenous artwork in its own right.
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