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Ethnic Jewelry from the Middle East (Page 1/2)

More Than Meets The Eye...

Taking time to understand and appreciate individual pieces of jewelry, and to place them in their proper context, can transform a simple ornament from an article of everyday or ceremonial wear into to a vantage point from which to gain valuable insight into times and places far removed from our own. Unfortunately, individual buyers all too often tend to see each piece of jewelry from the perspective of their own unique experience and through the various, and often contradictory or misleading views provided by local informants and shopkeepers. Many of these are themselves unaware of the larger social, cultural, and historical context. The majority of items therefore remains localized and out of context and much of what might have been gained in terms of insight and understanding is lost.

The following offers a brief introduction to some of the issues and obstacles which face individuals seeking to better understand and appreciate Middle Eastern Ethnic Jewelry.

Questions of Origin
Tradesmen scout about in isolated rural areas in Egypt, Jordan and Sudan in search of items for resale and trade, careful not to reveal their sources to those who buy from them. Iraqi refugees find jewelry an ideal commodity for sale and exchange in Amman. Immigrants from around the world dispose of family heirlooms in Jerusalem bazaars. Egyptian teachers and soldiers, working abroad or assigned to guard distant border areas often receive either meager compensation or are paid in inflated local currencies. To compensate, they buy jewelry for sale at home. In this way they have created a seasonal flow of silver ornaments into the Egyptian capital, making Cairo a major center for the trade in ethnic jewelry.

Bead sellers and traders traverse northern Africa, carrying not only items for sale but stories to go with them. Pilgrims to Mecca do a brisk business in jewelry and other items, not only in Saudi Arabia but along their entire route. Souvenirs from the Hajj (pilgrimage) and gifts for the folks at home are copied by local silversmiths. These and other factors contribute significantly to the dispersal of form and design motifs throughout the region.

Complexities of Dating
In Egypt and other North African countries, systems of verification of silver content and dating have been in place prior to the 20th Century. Sometimes, on the same piece one can find an Ottoman stamp and/or the stamps of one or more other countries, as well as the stamp of a particular workshop or craftsman. Despite the existence of multiple hallmarks and stamps, would seem to help clarify the issue of not only placing and object but also dating it. This might be true except for the fact that usually there is no readily available listing of such stamps and often-contradictory stamps coexist on the same item. At times an obviously Yemeni, Libyan, or Tunisian piece may have an Egyptian stamp, reflecting most likely either the time of its entry to the country or its validation at the time of sale in Egypt. It is often also unclear as to which direction individual pieces may have traveled in crossing borders.

Coins used in decoration may also be a consideration in dating a piece. Care must be taken however to assure that coins presented are original to the composition. Coins are often passed down through families as part of a dowry. They may have been removed from one piece and placed on a later piece. Coins, like jewelry, travel. Much Yemeni jewelry contains Indian coins; Jordanian pieces display Palestinian coins. The Maria Therese Thaler, the Saudi Riyal, the French Franc and various Egyptian coins are all important in the making of ethnic jewelry and can be found throughout the region, not only their country of origin. Many coins are not original but rather stamped imitations, sometimes modified to avoid the charge of counterfeiting.

Yousef Faghal and the Circassian Connection
A particularly revealing example of difficulties encountered in placing and dating an item is the Keraki amulet case and chain (Image 4) attributed to the silversmith Yousef Faghal or to one of his apprentices. Yousef came - along with the Emir Abdullah - in the early part of the century from Arabia to what was then Transjordan (Jordan today). He brought with him new styles and production techniques.

A bit prior to Yousef's arrival, Circassians fleeing persecution in Russia were settling in and around Amman. Circassian smiths accompanying this migration are credited with reintroducing the process of niello into the production and finishing of Jordanian silver ornaments.

At some point, these two divergent sources met and together led to the production of beautiful niello fish, amulets and bracelets now identified as typically Jordanian. Depending on where it was acquired the amulet case and chain, attributed here to Yousef, might have been identified either with north or south Jordan. Yousef and his apprentices traveled extensively, producing and selling items as they went. Other local craftsmen from these same areas were prone to copy these popular forms with little or no alteration.

Similar pieces with Palestinian coins are often reported as being from Tafila, a Jordanian town previously on the major crossroads between Hebron (Al-Khalil) and major Jordanian towns and cities. A second piece, identified as Keraki with stylized mosque decoration in niello, could easily be identified as from Irbid in the north of Jordan, if its true origin was not otherwise known. The mosque motif lends itself to identification with north Jordan, rather than Kerak in the south, where there was and remains a relatively large Christian population. Given its stylized form, reminiscent of art deco, some might place this piece somewhat later than its actual production date.

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