Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bedouin Jewelry

Silver pendants plaited into the hair; headbands with dangling teardrops; scarves with ancient coins fixed to the edges; crowns with a disk encrusted with stones; swinging pendants; elaborate chokers; bracelets and pelvic belts. (Because so much silver is required to make them, belts are scarce. But one private collection in Beirut boasts a belt that is at least 100 years old and is composed of dangling carry cases for pins, thimble and scissors; a mascara pot; a perfume vial; and an erasable ivory tablet with a hanging pencil to jot down reminders.)

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, and a professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB) says that many signs of animism—a prehistoric belief that all objects, men, plants and stones are inhabited by souls—still survive in the Middle East jewelry. Occasionally there is a mixture of symbols on the same piece of jewelry. 

In one collection in Jordan there is a necklace with both the Islamic crescent and a cross.

Common to all Bedouin jewelry are bells and dangling coins from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman 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 Basra, it is not an uncommon feature. Stacked triangles are a feature of the jewelry from Afghanistan. Called a "du'a," the triangle contains a compartment for paper prayers. Many typical Bedouin pieces also have a "du'a" 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," another common feature, which is adorned with a warning: an enlarged eye with blue-black shadows, and blue ceramic or glass beads.)

How the bedouins made their jewelry A Bedouin bride received jewelry as a dowry. Apart from camels and sheep, a bride got various items of jewelry which she could later use as currency when in need of money. They usually melted down silver coins and handcrafted it into their beautiful and original jewlery. This, sadly, is now fast becoming an extinct practice as more and more bedouins settle down and become locals and citizens of specific nations. This also means that no new generation of craftsmen is emerging and we are now on the verge of a lost tradition and craft.

Hallmarks Bedouins never hallmarked (Stamped) their jewelry. Jewelers who bought the jewelry from them sometimes stamped it. But this was done only in the past 50 years. Items older than 50 years are seldom hallmarked (stamped) but all are solid silver, ranging between 60%-90% (it is easier to handcraft silver at this percentage range). In addition, the older pieces usually needed to be taken apart and parts of them used in other items. This also contributed to the lack of Hallmarks on those items. The degree of silver content in the Jewelry, varied according to the wealth and status of the Beoduin Family that owned the jewelry. Also, richer Bedouin Families, tended to use Maria Theresa silver coins because of their high silver content.

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