This Ramadan Cartier launched The Pursuit of Magnificence, a regional campaign inspired by Jacques Cartier’s first trip to the Arabian Gulf in 1912. The French explorer was visiting local shops, residences and places of worships, from The Al Khamis Mosque in Bilad Al Qadeem to the House of Mugbil Al Thukair, a well-known pearl merchant in Bahrain, in search of pearls and new trade partners for his maison’s fine jewellery collections. What he discovered here was not just an abundance of pearls, gemstones and gold, but the deep-rooted, extraordinary relationship Arabs have with jewellery.
From the times of myths and legends, throughout the ages of sumptuous kingdoms, barren desert living and all the way to modern gold souks, jewellery has been Arabia’s expression of beauty, wealth and status. In the imaginary world of fairytales, in poetry and songs, in holly books and royal records, jewellery was present, time and time again, to provoke, enchant and inspire.
“Each of the forty women carried on her head a vast basin of solid gold, filled to the brim with pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, turquoise and a thousand other kinds of gems, all like the fruit of trees in shape, colour and size.” (The tale of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, from the Book of One Thousand and One Nights).
Just as in One Thousand and One Nights, at the court of Harun Al Rashid and all great kings of the Muslim dynasties, there were great treasuries filled with gold and silver jewellery, with pearls and precious stones, often given away as presents to visiting dignitaries and rulers, in grandiose gestures of largesse.
One of the first descriptions of jewellery in Arabia precedes Scheherazade and Harun Al Rashid, dating back to the reign of Queen of Sheba in present-day Yemen. In the Old Testament Book of Kings, it is written that Queen of Sheba arrived in Jerusalem “with a very great caravan” and she presents Solomon with “120 talents (four tonnes) of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones”.
Sceptical scholars claimed that this couldn’t be true because such resources could not possibly exist in her south Arabian kingdom, but excavations in this last decade in Yemen and Saudi Arabia brought to surface ancient tombs filled with gold jewellery and dug out gold mines too. In the Maraziq area of the Jawf region of northern Yemen, geological surveys have uncovered the remains of ancient camps for ore-crushing and grinding equipment, next to ancient test pits and mines. Further evidence was found in Jawan, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, in a tomb believed to be 500 years older than Islam. Sometime in the antiquity the tomb was rubbed, but gold jewellery and beads were still left inside.
Furthermore, written records of gifts and tributes taken by North Arabian Bedouin sheikhs to the kings of Mesopotamia and Assyria prove that Arabs were both gold and silver craftsmen since ancient times.
Whether locally made or imported, the presence of jewellery in the Arabian Gulf was largely synonymous with the wealth of the region. Before and during the early days of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula was known as the “gateway to the East” due to its location at the crossroads of trade routes. Maps still surviving today show that the Romans used to call southwestern Arabia the “Arabia Felix”, meaning “Happy Arabia”, referring to ancient beliefs that present-day Yemen was the location of the Garden of Eden.
In those early days, the Arabs used to supply the northern countries of the Near East with gold, copper and precious stones. Because of their knowledge of marine navigation, Arabs held the monopole of sea travelling back then, thus controlling trade in the region. It didn’t last, though.
The Roman invasion, the conflicts at the Muslim courts, the collapse of Marib Dam in southern Arabia, which triggered mass immigration and changed the “face” of the Gulf, the loss of sea trade monopole, as both the Greeks and the Romans learnt the Arabs’ navigational skills and the secrets of the monsoon winds, all led to the slow but steady economic decline of the Peninsula.
What followed was about 2000 years of hardship and even isolation from the up and coming Western world. For jewellery, this meant bad, but also good news.
THE RISE OF SILVER
Gold jewellery has been found in Arabia for centuries before Islam, but hardly any silver, which is believed to have simply disappeared as the metal does not have the same long lasting qualities as gold. Yet, the little that was found indicated far more elaborate and complex designs than the gold jewellery.
The techniques and styles of Bedouin silver jewellery have striking similarities to those of antic civilisations. The twisted silver bracelets known as melwi in Saudi Arabia have their origins in Greece and Egypt. The nose ring so fashionable in the Middle Ages was first worn by Byzantine and Fatimid women. But this is when design influences end. With Arabia left to its deserts, designs of traditional Nomadic jewellery remained unchanged for hundreds of centuries, thus becoming unique, unlike any other modern style.
Whether it was a matter of taste or budget, silver has also become the official metal of Bedouin adornment, often decorated with coloured beads and, in the case of wealthier families, precious stones.
The reason silver took over gold was also attributed to coinage, especially the Maria Theresa thaler, found throughout Oman, Abu Dhabi emirate and other parts of Arabia until the second half of the 20th century. Along with rupees and other silver coins, the thaler was used in its original form to decorate jewellery, strung on to necklaces, headbands or sawn onto headdresses. The Maria Theresa thaler was also loved for its high content of pure silver and that is why, until today, Omani jewellery has the highest amount of silver, minimum 84 percent reaching to 90 percent (the rest being copper).
Throughout the Peninsula, Nomadic jewellery was crafted in silver workshops in settled areas, mostly oasis and mountain towns. The majority of this jewellery was ready made, following prototype patterns and styles, but when going shopping, women would often buy additional beads, studs and other small ornaments, using them to stylize their headscarves. Until the 1970s, the most renowned craftsmen were the silversmiths of Najran and Yemen, whose skills are still highly praised nowadays, although they are disappearing along with the traditional Bedouin jewellery.
Ready bought or custom-made jewellery had slightly different designs from one Arab region to another, which allowed for a woman’s “roots” to be identified. The styles varied from cities to towns and desert dwellings, but also from budget to budget.
Generally, urban women would own and wear more gold and more sophisticated designs, while their village and Nomadic sisters would stick to silver and generally less intricate styles. Occasionally, even the silver would become too dear and this is when brass and copper was used instead or mixed with silver. The precious and semi-precious stones too would be replaced by a colourful variety of glass beads. It was often the case that jewellery designs made in gold for the ladies of the palace or rich families were perfectly replicated in silver by the Bedouin women.
Social and financial status aside, the ladies of rural and desert areas would often wear jewellery styles that clearly “belonged” to their tribe or geographical area. The desert silver had solid, heavy designs, often incorporating several elements to the final piece. A necklace, for example, may have one or two pendants decorated with coloured glass beads or precious stones, from which small bunches of chains were dangling, each with an ornate small ball at its end.
It is said that when a Bedouin woman would come visit, the sound of her jewellery would announce the homeowners well in advance, so that the men of the house had enough time to retreat to their quarters and leave the ladies to their meeting.
JEWELLERY IN THE SACRED TEXTS
In pre and post Islamic Arabia, the practice of adornment was not the women’s prerogative. Although to a much lesser extent, men too wore jewellery and also decorated themselves with beautifully ornate weapons. Far from being superfluous, self-adornment was seen, in many parts of Arabia, as a form of cultural expression for both men and women in Bedouin societies.
Whether jewellery or other type of personal decoration, the practice symbolised certain beliefs, tribal or regional affiliation, status and position. Camel sticks, money or tobacco pouches, but especially weapons, along with silver and precious stone rings were the usual choice of adornment for men. The famous khanjar, the Arabian curved dagger, was beautifully and delicately crafted in silver designs, worn not only as a tool, but also as ceremonial jewel.
Even if they could afford gold, men preferred silver for both their jewellery and their weapons and this was largely attributed to the Koran.
Overall, jewellery is not prohibited, but nor is it encouraged in the Muslim holly book. It simply advises modesty: “And let them not stamp their feet when walking so as to reveal their hidden trinkets.” (Sura 24, verse30).
For the true believer, the beauty of gold will be one of the rewards offered in Paradise: “And those who believe […] for them are prepared gardens of eternal abode, which shall be watered by rivers. They shall be adjourned therein with bracelets of gold…” (Sura 18, verse 30).
Further advice about the wearing of jewellery is offered by Prophet Mohammed in the hadith (his sayings), who regarded the purpose of jewellery too important to be ignored or left without explanation.
Prophet Mohammed ordained that in general, silver was preferable to gold for women, but for men gold was definitely forbidden. Himself, the Prophet wore a silver ring inscribed with the words Mohammad, Messenger of Allah, which he used for wax sealing written messages to caliphs and sultans.
“Gold and silk are permitted to women of my congregation and forbidden to men”, read one of Prophet Mohammed’s hadith. The interdiction of gold for men triggered a dislike for the craft as well. Muslim goldsmiths were a rare sight in Arabia, as it was believed that just by crafting gold might have a harmful impact on the mind and the soul.
Yet, Muslim believers did not object to buying gold jewellery from Jewish and Christian goldsmiths, who practiced this craft in the Gulf or just came trading here. Particularly in Yemen, the gold craft was almost entirely in the hands of the Jewish villagers.
Early religious beliefs also lent protective powers to jewellery, particularly silver. Often both jewellery and other ornaments were thought to be imbued with magical powers and offer protection from the evil eye.
THE HAND OF FATIMA
The Hand of Fatima, also known as the Eye of Fatima, was the most popular talisman in ancient Arabia, which became especially famous in Turkey and North Africa.
This jewellery piece, made either of silver or gold, in the shape of an open palm, was inspired by Fatima Zahra, Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, and initially worn as a protective talisman.
The practice of women wearing charms and amulets became common in the early days of Islam. Legend has it that a turquoise stone would glow when its wearer was happy, but when the wearer was sad, the stone would become dull. Another popular myth was that the tiny tinkling bells prominent on so many pieces of Arabian jewellery would protect the wearer by frightening off malevolent spirits with their noise.
Silver itself was considered “magic”. One well-spread belief was that if a baby is scared and cries a lot, or if it had bad dreams, one can find out the reason by melting a piece of silver and then pour cold water over it. The silver would take the shape of a camel, a cat, a person’s face or whatever would frighten the child.
Throughout Arabia, most Bedouin jewellery contains bells, chains and dangling beads, always in bunches of three, five or seven, as these numbers were believed to ward off the evil eye. The snakehead often found at the end of open silver bracelets was believed to protect against snakebites. Still found today, the hirz are protective amulets containing Koran verses or one of the 99 names of Allah engraved in gold or silver.
The evil or wandering eye is actually recognised by Islam. Prophet Mohammed spoke of it, but he told Muslim followers to avoid it by reciting verses from the Koran, rather than carrying the khamsa, the name given to a distant souvenir of pagan times containing talismanic symbols. In many Arabic dialects khamsa means “five”, so the term was also used to describe the Hand of Fatima (with its five fingers) and even connected with the prophetic number five in Islam – the five pillars of Islam and the dutiful daily five prayers.
Islamic scholars condemned the use of charms such as the Hand of Fatima, but also medals containing verses from the Koran and even illuminated paintings from the holly book that some Muslims hang on their walls, saying they should all be banned. And, throughout the Arabian Peninsula, they were, but in North Africa, Turkey and other parts of the Middle East they are still found today, perhaps more out of tradition than superstition.
Still, symbols of protection against the Evil Eye remained present in the designing of jewellery. In parts of Saudi Arabia, for example, traditional Bedouin necklaces are frequently adorned with ancient motifs such as the hand charm or crescents, but they have little to do with superstitions. Instead, they are a rather romantic reminder of symbols often described or referred to in Arabic love poetry.
In most parts of the Gulf the crafting of jewellery, which varied from quite plain to highly ornate with a variety of techniques and designs, made use of twisted wires, bells, triangles, hands and the figure “8”.
Colours had their symbolism too. Green, blue and red were considered to have protective properties and therefore the most popular precious stones used in jewellery were turquoise, agate and coral, as well as similar coloured glass beads. Amber was also held at high esteem and the good news was that it was found in Arabia – in Yemen to be precise.
In Arabian societies of the Gulf, jewellery has always been more than fashion or visual attraction. A woman’s jewellery was not just a means of seduction, it was a means of living. In the not so distant past, women of the regions would wear jewellery not only at special occasions, but also in everyday life, when doing housework, grinding flour, kneading dough or sawing dresses. It was lesser and simpler jewellery used on a daily basis, with the most expensive and elaborate pieces reserved for special ceremonies such as weddings.
A full set of jewellery would include pieces for the ankles, wrists, fingers, ears and a variety of necklaces. If there was a wedding celebration, there would also be a tassa, the delicate lace-like chains covering the head, the riesh, the two pieces clipped on the hair on both sides of the temple and the shaf, a chain with coin-like decorations for the forehead.
Some of the wealthier Bedouin women would wear several wrist bracelets, elbow and arm decorative bands, anklets and rings especially designed for each finger. To this they would add a nose ring for each nostril, several head pieces, special jewellery ornaments for the dress, belts, medallions close to the neck and necklaces flowing down to the waist. Not very common, but even gold teeth in front of the mouth were once part of the daily glitter. Once in her lifetime, all this treasure would be fully displayed, as a Bedouin bride carried her entire wealth on her person in silver jewellery.
The jewellery owned by a desert, village or town woman also represented her social and economic status. According to tradition, at least partially the dowry of a bride was settled in jewellery, which became her personal wealth to do what she pleases with. To this initial set, more jewellery is added anytime she gives birth. In celebration of a married woman’s fecundity, it has always been customary in Bedouin societies to offer gifts of jewellery to the mother any time she gives birth. In contrast, unmarried girls would never wear jewellery, as this was regarded as a “masque” for her ugliness.
Part of the reason it is close to impossible to trace silver jewellery through antiquity is because, traditionally, it was not kept or passed on from generation to generation. Even though the silver itself may be centuries older than the piece of jewellery, rarely is any silver jewel older than 50 years. The explanation lies in Bedouin customs.
After a woman passes away, much of her possessions, especially clothes, are given away to the poor, but her silver jewellery was usually melted and re-crafted into new pieces. Since this jewellery was hers alone, representing her style and status, and since it was used throughout her life and thus was likely worn off or even damaged, an old lady’s jewellery was not “fitted” for a young bride. The silver may be kept, but it had to be made into new pieces.
Even though a young wife would not accept to wear an old woman’s jewellery, during weddings and other celebrations Bedouin ladies would not hesitate to borrow silver or gold jewellery just for the occasion.
Nowadays, traditional Bedouin silver jewellery is found in old pictures and history museums; it adorns luxurious hotel rooms rather than a young bride. Modern designs in seductive shapes, studded with diamonds, rubies and other precious or semi-precious stones are preferred.
Gold, a sign of purity and wealth in the Arab world, is once again the favoured metal. Traditional pieces, which are elaborate and heavy, now made in gold, are the choice during weddings, the henna night in particular. The young generations, though, are trading the old-fashioned tasah, which adorns head and hair, murtasaha (chains), khawatem (rings), merria (necklace), khaf (a decorative ornament for the hand) and heyool (bracelets) for the sleek European designs.
Traditional Bedouin jewellery is disappearing not only because it has become out of fashion, but for economic reasons too – craftsmen turn to other, more profitable work as international brands take over. Also, as a commodity, gold is simply more valuable than silver.