Spectacular objects may carry powerful messages about cultural affinities and legitimation. Such is the case set out here for the Kargaly diadem, supposedly a headpiece, of gold and semi-precious stones buried in a pit on the southern edge of the steppe in the northern foothills of the Tianshan mountains some 2000 years ago. This was a period when the Han Empire of China was seeking to increase its hold over the western borderlands and it is in that context, and the fluctuating rivalries of local polities, that the Kargaly diadem is to be understood. Chinese iconography figures prominently on the diadem which may have been a diplomatic gift from the Han imperial court, but technological details suggest that it was produced within the western borderlands beyond China itself. The combination of Chinese and other elements testify to the fluidity of cultural interaction around the borders of the expanding Han Empire and the imitation and incorporation of symbols of power by contending local elites.