It’s spring 2012 and on the Aegean island of Rhodes, an earnest Greek shopowner clutching a fistful of worry beads informs me: “Yes, there exists a problem, but we didn’t cause the problem.”
Greece’s debt crisis was in full swing and people were feeling the pinch. 90 days before, the united states was bailed out to the tune of €240 billion ($290bn). But what caught my eye were the beads. Were they for praying? Breaking off from his tirade, laughing, he said no, and effortlessly made the loop of black stones dance through his fingers.
Like a child who was simply displayed a card trick or a disappearing coin, I asked to try. The beads rattled and clicked but became tangled around my fingers. Clearly, more practice was required.
So began a love affair with the Greek komboloi.
What is a komboloi?
This part of Greek and Cypriot culture doesn’t benefit from the same recognition as the Parthenon or sunsets on Santorini, however the loops of odd-numbered beads certainly are a peculiar mix of pastime, stress toy, good-luck charm, heirloom, anti-smoking aid and - within their more costly versions - status symbol.
In the centre East, we are aware of the misbaha, the strings of beads found in Islamic prayer. Greeks, who spent centuries under Muslim Ottoman rule, eventually adopted these beads, but their use and meaning changed radically.
Giving the misbaha new meaning
Eleni Evangelinou of the Komboloi Museum in Nafplio draws a clear distinction between the Greek komboloi and other beads or rosaries used for prayer. “Greeks took this object - the Muslim prayer beads - and turned it into something very different, into a thing that had nothing in connection with prayer or religion. They gave the beads space to go freely on the rope ... they created a happy ‘game’.”
In village squares across Greece and Cyprus, older men - and it is mostly men - is seen chewing the fat, strings of komboloi hanging from their hands or making a soothing, clicking sound as their owners allow stones slip through their fingers, one at a time.
But this image of the sleepy village grandfather with his beads has been supplanted by a fresh wave of komboloi designers, workshops and online stores that are offering a fresh take on this distinctive accessory for men - and, increasingly, women - sometimes as far away as the US or Australia.
A modern-day refresh
One of these far-flung komboloi suppliers is Jon Lambousis, who opened his Komboloi Shop in Melbourne in 2019. The son of Greek immigrants, he makes his kombologia yourself, and is clearly a man with a mission.
“The previous generation, in addition to some people in the older range of my generation, sadly are stuck in the past with the misconception that the komboloi is solely for old men,” he informs me. “It definitely is not the case in Greece rather than the case here in Australia, either.
“My job is to dispel that myth and that was the theory behind the store, to create modern designs whilst embracing traditions to reintroduce the komboloi to the next generations.”
Lambousis also sees the item’s use and function changing as his customer base expands to include younger people and more women. “A lot of the derivative products, such as for example komboloi-inspired bracelets and necklaces, have grown to be very popular, together with hybrid kombologia that can be worn as bracelets,” he says.
“Also, key rings are popular, as are kombologia as handbag ornaments. Overall, the komboloi is now a day to day carry item for a number of people.”
Something to occupy the hands - and mind
The portable, everyday nature of the komboloi, a few of which may be bought for less than €2 at newspaper kiosks across Greece, really helps to make it a sought-after show mark special occasions such as for example birthdays, weddings or graduations.