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Introduction to ethnic jewellery

When we talk about vintage ethnic jewellery and adornment we are not just referring to items used to add life and beauty to an outfit such as a decorative pair of silver earrings or an attractive stylish pendant, a concept synonymous with Western thinking. Certainly in the past it was ethnic culture that often dictated the type, style and design of items worn by women in countries such as Africa, Asia and the Arabian Peninsula – and this culture was demonstrated by the concept of whole body adornment that communicated the woman’s unique identity, her whole sense of ‘self’. It encompassed a woman’s social status, wealth, tribal identity, religious beliefs and matrimonial status.

Sometimes a woman would create her own assemblage, creatively adding a piece of amber, chevron trade beads, red glass beads or an amulet to an existing regional tribal necklace for example, making a powerful statement about the essence of who she was. This may be to show that she was a bride, to represent the birth of a child or to show belonging to a particular tribal group. Her wealth would be worn about her person, not locked away for occasional wear. Often, to the Western eye, these items of crafted jewellery nowadays appear ‘primitive’…but in fact this form of embellishment and adornment was highly-developed and provided insight into the identity of the individual who integrated her appearance with her sense of self and showed it with pride.

Techniques used in making jewellery and bodily adornment included enamelling, engraving, filigree, niello and relief work, as well as the attachment of semi-precious stones such as amber, carnelian, coral and turquoise. Beads, which were once used as currency for trading purposes, were also frequently attached to necklaces, adding to their beauty and value. Old silver coins also added value to the piece.

An overview of some of the main types of ethnic adornment

Fibula/Fibulae.

A Fibula is an item of jewellery that was commonly worn by women in North Africa as everyday adornment whilst going about daily work as well as on special occasions. It is essentially a cloak fastener, comprising an ornate metal triangular, round or oval shape with detailed etchings in filigree or enamel, and a pin with a hoop which serves to fasten two layers of material together. They were usually worn as a pair. Tribal women often wore (and sometimes still do) a simple piece of material or two pieces of material draped across their bodies and tied with a belt. The fibula negated the need to cut the material or to sew it; the clothing could simply be fastened by the use of the pin or pins to attach the material together. At the same time, the fibula served as a decorative item. If it was made in an inverted triangular shape, this represented the female form. Often attached to the fibula by means of a chain was a tagemout (egg-shaped pendant) symbolising fertility or an amulet such as a hirz that was believed to have protective qualities [see below]. Also attached may be a number of dangling silver coins symbolising wealth. The weight, size, detail and workmanship of the fibula worn indicated the social standing of the wearer. Each region or tribe would have had its own distinctive style of fibula, unique to them alone.

Amulet.

The supernatural played a very large role in the life of people belonging to ethnic groups and still does today. It was not enough to just wear jewellery for adornment, rather an amulet was often attached as a symbol of protection against any evil forces which might try to influence or bring illness to the wearer. The amulet was inextricably linked to the religious beliefs of the people and to their culture. Often, the amulet could be opened and inside would be stored tiny documents citing the Qur’an. Commonly found as part of Yemeni necklaces, amulets were often very ornate with fine granulation and silver work, either in the shape of a cylinder or box. The box-type amulets were often worn as the centrepiece of Moroccan fibulae. They were usually either decorated silverwork or made of silver and adorned with green and yellow enamel, representing nature/life and sunshine. Within would be found sacred texts or substances to protect the wearer and ward off all perceived supernatural forces, danger or disease.

Hamsa.

Although technically another type of amulet, the hamsa (or khamsa) is a unique item that was often worn as a pendant or larger versions used in house decoration. Since pre-Islamic times, Jews, Carthaginians and Romans all saw the hamsa as having the power to avert evil. However, Islam adopted the symbol and gave it the name ‘Hand of Fatima’ in honour of the prophet’s daughter. The word hamsa means ‘five’ in the Arabic language and the symbol of the open hand with its five fingers is said to represent the five pillars of Islam: profession of faith, obligatory prayer, almsgiving, fasting during Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca. The Jews saw the symbol as a reminder to all to praise God with all five senses. Wearing this symbol as jewellery has increased in popularity through time, even being seen worn recently by Western popstars such as Beyonce, albeit sometimes in a more stylised and modern form. In the Arab world the hamsa was usually made of silver, sometimes with added filigree and enamel work. It may also have displayed motifs such as flowers, animals, scorpions, birds, daggers or ‘the evil eye’, each symbol reinforcing the protective power of the amulet.

Necklaces.

Necklaces have always been one of the most popular forms of adornment in the Arab world. Vintage North African pieces often have coral, genuine (or faux) amber, shells and beads. At the centre of the necklace one will often find amulets of different shapes or silver tagemout which are egg-shaped beads decorated with filigree and enamel. Necklaces from Tajikistan, for example, often have traditional silver beads separating strands of branch coral, adorned with clam shells and medallions bearing tribal motifs. What is common to all regions is that each necklace is unique.

Bracelets

Silver bracelets were, and still are, produced in great quantities and in varying styles all over the world. In some regions where people could not afford to commission items made of silver, it was common for a silversmith to design an item for an individual out of silver alloys or metal. He would, however, still carry out his work to the same standard, with the same care and attention, to produce beautiful decorative items.

One of the most interesting styles of bracelet is that once worn by women of the Ait Atta tribe of Morocco. These were characterised by their heavy weight (sometimes up to a kilo per pair) and the spikes (as many as twelve of them!) surrounding the bangle itself. They were sometimes worn as an item of self-defence, an early form of knuckle-duster one might say. Mizam bracelets from Guelmim are chunky silver bangles with very ornate granulation worn by Guedra dancers. Tuareg bracelets from Mauritania, on the other hand, are often much thinner bracelets with incising and red/black enamelling or silver bands with small granulation. A more ornate type of bracelet is that made by the Kabylie people of Northern Algeria. These people are renowned for their exquisite enamelling work in the traditional colours of yellow, green and blue, also for the quality of silver used and the addition of bezel set coral beads. These bracelets are often hinged and closed with a pin, or can take the shape of a flared cuff. Traditional Turkmen bracelets are made from gilded silver with the addition of bezel-set carnelian to stunning effect. The carnelian stones represent life, happiness and vitality and are said to protect the wearer from blood disorders.

Head Adornment.

Ethnic head adornment can take many forms - from decorative hats to embellished hair strands. Items in our range are mainly those originating from Berber (Amazigh) culture. Many of the ‘earrings’ worn by the Amazigh people were very large and impressive pieces, so large in fact that they would not be able to be worn as normal earrings, passing through the earlobe. Instead they were frequently worn either side of a woman’s head attached to a headband which crossed the head to support the weight.  They are commonly known as temporals as they sit near to the temple of the head and are often highly decorative, adorned with fine enamelling and/or glass cabochons. The Tuareg people often wore decorative handmade hairpieces of braided leather adorned with conus shells (offering perceived protection from ‘the evil eye’) and agate tanfouk (a traditional symbol of fertility). Headdresses were also a common feature of ethnic adornment. These were often made of quality silver with chains linking to a central ornate plaque or amulet with dangles which would rest on the wearer’s forehead. These gave a very regal appearance to the woman wearing her headpiece. Sometimes more simple headpieces would be in the form of a headband to which would be attached slices of shell, glass or coral beads, small pendants and even old coins. Head adornment showed diversity between tribes and cultures as well as between wealth and poverty.

Rings

Rings are considered very important items of adornment in ethnic communities. They are often large statement pieces with gemstones and elaborate engraving or they feature symbolic elements tied up with identity and culture. Examples of this are carnelian stones (in Turkmen rings), turquoise (in Himalayan and Afghan rings) and chevron beads (in North African rings). Usually, several rings are worn at once on different fingers as a proud display of identity.

For a more in-depth study of these fascinating ethnic jewels we would recommend the following reference books:

Borel, F. (1994). The Splendour of Ethnic Jewelry. London: Thames and Hudson

Ransom, M. (2014). Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba: Regional Yemeni Jewelry. AUC Press

Fisher, A. (1998). Africa Adorned. New York: H. Abrams

Grammet, I. and Meersman, M. (1998). Splendeurs du Maroc. Tervuren (Belgique): Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale

Rabaté, M. (2013). Les Fibules. Paris-La Défense: ACR éd.

Draguet, M. and Merode, N., 2020. Berber Memories. Yale University Press,

Rabaté, M. (2015). Bijoux du Maroc. ACR, Paris-Là Défense,

Gharib, K. (2012). La Main au Maroc. Paris: Somogy.

Al-Jadir, S. (1996). Kunuz. Casablanca: LAK International,