Collecting Middle Eastern jewelery has become an act of cultural preservation. There´s some urgency in acquiring, collecting and recording the uses and history of Middle Eastern silver jewellery.
One of the pleasures of Middle East living used to be shopping for old jewelry—especially old Bedouin jewelry, rich in intricate silverwork, coral, carnelian and pretty stones picked up from the hills and sands during the Bedouin’s movements.
Nowadays, the handmade jewellery that once graced the persons of desert nomads is disappearing. The Bedouins themselves are exchanging it for modern pieces jewellery. The jewellers in the cities are breaking the jewels and remodeling it for modern pieces. Artisans who once made the jewelry are retiring or changing the way they work. And most of what remains is already in private collections and museums.
According to experts, this trend is widespread. In Saudi Arabia silversmiths are melting down Bedouin jewelry and recasting the silver in new designs. In Karak, in Jordan, two Yemeni jewelers who set the styles in jewellery for several generations have retired. In Beirut a jeweler who could once verify the stamp of a particular craftsman or pick out a technique characteristic to him says that the old work doesn’t pay anymore.
Why? Because life and values are changing dramatically as the Bedouins settle down. The BedouinS are not at all reluctant to change the rigors of life in the desert for the comforts, and the opportunities of life in towns or villages. And wifes are no less reluctant to exchange pieces engraved by hand in patterns as old as tribal tradition, for costume jewelry fresh from a factory stamping machine.
Most Bedouin designs probably go back to ancient southern Iraq, famous in Biblical times for gold and silver mined from the Kurdistan hills.
Another influence was Rome. Funeral busts in Palmyra, Syria, from the first-century A.D. show similarities to what was worn in the days of Caesars and what is worn by Bedouins today.
After the Arab conquests of Persia, the Persian mastery of fine engravings, filigree and inlays influenced Arab designs even more. During Mogul and Tamurlane times, other features were copied, some still survive today in Afghanistan, and in the Jebal Druze area of Syria. This seems to be especially evident in the elaborate diadem headdresses sometimes worn today in Lebanon at weddings.
What has evolved is a wide variety of jewelry: silver pendants plaited into the hair; headbands with dangling beads, scarves with antique coins fixed to the edges; crowns with a disk encrusted with stones; swinging pendants; intricate chokers; bracelets and belts. (Because so much silver is required to make them, belts are very rare.
Many Bedouin designs are functional but most also have symbolic meaning. Indeed some collectors say every item of jewelry relates to some religious expression or ancient belief, there are many signs of animism—a prehistoric belief that all objects, men, plants and stones are inhabited by souls—still survive in the Middle Eastern jewelry. Occasionally there is a mixture of symbols on the same piece of jewelry.
Common to all Bedouin jewelry are bells and dangling coins from Ottoman, Byzantine and Roman times. Other distinctive features are the Islamic half moon—said by some to be Turkish in origin, but by others to be typically Kurdish. Iraqi jewelry often has turquoise or pearls from Bahrain, a trading neighbor. The filigree is supposed to be Turkish in origin, but from Beirut to Sana´a, it is not an uncommon feature. Many typical Bedouin pieces also have a “du’a” (prayer) that is cylindrical. (The prayers placed in the compartment are believed by some to ward off misfortune, sickness and death. So, it is thought, does the “hand of Fatima”.
The traders that regularly go to the refugee camps or the desert plains in the time of Bedouin seasonal migrations in search of bargains, the attraction of Bedouin jewelry is economic rather than aesthetic. To some collectors it is simply rejection of the stamped, mass-produced costume jewelry. To others in love with the history it is something more. It is the echo of a way of life. To them the disappearance of this jewelry also means the disappearance of a life they once symbolized.