Throughout the Middle East, Silver, jewellery speaks about the lives of women and girls and the talents of artisans. It provides a window into social status, religion, regional identities and changing lives in changing times.
Marjorie Ransom never set out to become a collector of Middle Eastern silver jewelry. She bought her first piece for the sheer pleasure of it when she was a graduate student studying Arabic in Damascus in 1960. It was a large cuff bracelet, of low silver content but covered with intricate and finely worked decoration. The dealer told her it was from North Africa.
After she finished her studies and married David Ransom, a fellow Foreign Service officer and Arabist, she and David began careers that took them to us embassies in Yemen, Syria and the United Arab Emirates together. Later, when they were too senior for joint appointments, she served in Egypt and Damascus while he became United States ambassador to Bahrain.
Marjorie found herself drawn ineluctably into the spell of Middle Eastern jewelry. “Everywhere I went I was fascinated by its exoticism and its enormous range of styles and designs,” she explains. “It opened an immediate and powerful window into the life and culture of the Middle East. David and I began to seek it out in suqs and silver shops wherever we went in the region.”
Soon, she recalls, they realized they had moved beyond acquiring pieces just for her to wear. “We were buying because of the jewelry’s inherent beauty and craftsmanship and for the thrill of discovery that came when one of us found a piece that challenged us to learn its origins.” From that grew a desire to understand both the lives of the women who wore the jewelry and the skills of the men who made it.
The Ransoms’ collection grew and today numbers more than 1000 pieces. Some 285 of them were shown to the public for the first time in the 2003 exhibition “Silver Speaks: The Traditional Silver Jewelry of the Middle East” at the Bead Museum in Washington, D.C. In addition to displays based on countries and regions, the exhibition emphasized no less the social, economic and cultural changes that, over the last half century, have reduced—or, in many places, nearly eliminated—silver jewelry as an important part of a woman’s life. Gold shops now far outnumber silver shops; the tribal and village economies that patronized silver craftsmen are increasingly tied to urban ones; and modern dowries are more likely to involve gold, electronics and home furnishings than silver.
As a result, silver collecting has become an act of cultural preservation. There is an urgency to acquiring, cataloging and recording the history and uses of Middle Eastern silver jewelry, and the Ransom collection is one manifestation of this effort. Since 1985, Princess Haifa Al Faisal, wife of the Saudi ambassador to the us, has been assembling a collection of objects of material culture, including silver jewelry, from traditional Bedouin, rural and urban life in the Arabian Peninsula between 1900 and 1980. Comprising more than 7000 objects, the collection merged in 2002 with another one built in Saudi Arabia by the Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society and is now called the Sana Collection. While two-thirds of the objects are currently in the us, and many have been lent over the years for display in various museums, the Sana Collection will ultimately be made available to scholars and the public in Riyadh.
Throughout the Arab world, as well as in Turkey and Iran, gold jewelry, domestically made or imported, has “almost completely replaced” the art of the Middle Eastern silversmith, says Princess Haifa, and eclipsed “the cultural and social significance of the jewelry itself. The Ransom collection, which preserves the region’s rich past, is an extremely important resource for the future.”
Traditionally, nomadic Bedouins and village families were among the silversmith’s best customers. Women in such settings often acquired most of their jewelry through marriage. Part of the dowry, or mahr, given by the groom to the bride’s father to confirm the marriage, was used to buy or commission jewelry from the local silversmith. This would be part of what the bride would wear on her wedding day.
Basaam Qahwaji, who helped the Ransoms identify many pieces in their collection, grew up in a family that owns one of the oldest textile and jewelry shops in Damascus. He remembers attending village weddings where the brides wore kilos of silver jewelry. “They had chokers, necklaces, headdresses with chains of silver coins, armbands, bracelets and anklets,” he says. “Wedding guests would often bring gifts of more jewelry and go to the stage where the bride sat adorned and place it around her neck.”
This jewelry remained a woman’s own property, even in the event of divorce, and she could sell it at will, so it was like a savings account, to be drawn on in bad times or for special purchases, and it provided her throughout her life with a measure of economic security and independence.
A woman’s jewelry also told others a lot about who she was and where she came from. Given the unifying influence of Islam, many designs and motifs were common to jewelry all across the Middle East, and even beyond to Central Asia, but specific elements, such as the distinctive granulation and filigree of Yemeni jewelry, the turquoise of Saudi Arabian jewelry or the rectangular hirz, or amulet holder, of Oman, could tell a woman’s tribal, regional or national identity.
Jewelry also announced a woman’s social and marital status. Some pieces, such as thehanum triangles from Yemen, were understood to be worn only by married women, and jewelry could tell others at a glance whether or not she was the mother of a son or sons—when, for instance, the tips of pendants on necklaces worn by Siwan women of western Egypt were broken off to mark each male birth.
The amount of new jewelry a woman acquired after marriage was considered both a measure of the value her husband placed on her—very often she received additional pieces on the birth of a son—as well as of her own ability, through selling handicrafts or other products, to add to her stock. New jewelry raised her status in the eyes of her community. Since time beyond memory, one of the most powerful reasons to wear jewelry has been as a charm against evil spirits. Such practices were common to Muslim, Christian and Jewish women of the region, reflecting women’s fears of disease, accidents or bad luck, and recognizing the vulnerability of children, husbands and family members to calamities beyond anyone’s control.
Young children wore amulets to keep them safe from jinns, or evil spirits; these often included a noise-making element, such as tiny bells or seeds encapsulated in silver, the sound of which was believed to keep spirits at bay. Colored stones incorporated in jewelry, particularly red and blue ones, were also thought to aid in repelling evil. In Yemen, Jewish silversmiths created for their Muslim clients kitabs or hijabs, hollow cylindrical forms designed to hold a written verse from the Qu’ran, which were believed to have protective power. Gradually the shape itself assumed amuletic associations.
Other amuletic jewelry included silver pendants in the shape of triangles, stars, moons, rosettes or the stylized hands of Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet, as well as pieces inscribed with invocations of the name of God, such as “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet,” or “As God wills.” These were considered to be particularly efficacious, in much the same way as many contemporary Catholics still wear medals or scapulars inscribed with prayers or invocations.
But beyond wealth, worry, identity or religion, jewelry was—and is—above all an adornment. Women decked themselves with silver finger rings, toe rings, bracelets, armbands, anklets, necklaces, chokers, chains, belts, chestpieces, earpieces, nosepieces, headpieces, pieces to attach to face veils or to headscarves, all with the idea of making themselves beautiful. In an often harsh life with few comforts, jewelry surely gave them simple pleasure and raised their spirits.
Women wore some of their jewelry in the privacy of their homes for their husbands and families, or at festivals and special occasions, such as weddings. Bedouin women wore jewelry even at work. In public, where display might impinge on a Muslim woman’s sense of modesty, the sound of tiny silver ankle bells or the clinking of silver chains concealed by her clothing, heard but unseen, was nevertheless an allurement, a way of hinting at her hidden beauty.
To satisfy a woman’s desire for jewelry that would embody her wealth, proclaim her identity, keep her safe from the evil eye and make her feel beautiful, silversmiths created a wealth of forms with designs that often echoed ancient motifs from pre-Islamic cultures. They added pearls, turquoise, amber, lapis lazuli, coral, carnelian and other stones or beads as both decoration and amulet.
The quality of the silver used and the workmanship employed varied according to a client’s ability to pay. Wealthy clients ordered particularly important pieces to be gilded or to be elaborately augmented with stones or actual silver coins, particularly Maria Theresa thalers, whose consistent silver content was a known measure of value. Nomadic clients, whose wealth needed to be portable and rested principally in jewelry and livestock, commissioned more and heavier pieces than town and village dwellers, who had other ways to invest.
But whatever the weight or silver content, jewelry could be lavished with exquisite workmanship regardless of its intrinsic value. Silversmiths used filigree, chasing, bossing, niello, stamping and appliqué to create distinctive designs based on the principles of harmony and balance. The investment of fine and skilled craftsmanship in a relatively inexpensive piece of jewelry is all the more remarkable considering that its resale value was based solely on its weight and silver content, without regard to workmanship, and that old pieces were regularly melted down to create new ones. Jewelry was not passed down in a family. A bride did not want to inherit someone else’s jewelry, but wanted it to be new, made for her and reflecting the important passage she was making to the status of a married woman.
Saving finely worked jewelry from the melting pot was part of what propelled the Ransoms beyond acquiring pieces for Marjorie to wear and toward becoming, unintentionally, collectors. “It was hard to think that this jewelry, over which silversmiths had labored so intently and with such imagination and such a variety of techniques, would just disappear,” she says, pointing to a necklace of silver clipped-cornered cubes from the ‘Asir region of Saudi Arabia. She rescued it from a silversmith’s melting pot in Jiddah in 1969.
By that time, silver jewelry was increasingly seen as old-fashioned by urban and wealthier women. Marjorie, who made a point of wearing some of her jewelry at work and in her private life—both because she loved it and because it was a sort of cultural ice-breaker—recalls, “Women would come up to me and point to my jewelry and say I was wearing what their mothers and grandmothers had worn. They would be very pleased and excited that I wore it, but they themselves did not. They thought it out of fashion then, and not as pretty as gold.”
Basaam Qahwaji points out that in the late 1960’s, when he was still living in Damascus, large amounts of Arab silver jewelry came to his family to trade. “I made many trips abroad then, selling it to dealers from Europe and the United States who were catering to the hippy-driven craze for ethnic dress and adornment,” he recalls, “and the oil boom of the early 1970’s accelerated the process of de-accessioning silver.”
As wealth from oil in the Arabian Peninsula increased and spread through the society, women turned more and more to buying imported gold jewelry, which was often manufactured with a nod to traditional decoration and design. And as inflation affected themahr, it was easier for bridegrooms to meet the amount with high-value gold or desirable consumer goods such as refrigerators. As a result, large amounts of silver jewelry came on the market, a lot of it ending up in melting pots. Later in the 1970’s, when speculation in the price of silver reached a fever pitch worldwide, more traditional jewelry met the same fate.
The Ransoms witnessed this depletion firsthand. Their urge to save what they could and to learn its history and context grew more urgent: “It became a passion for both of us,” Marjorie says. “We would hunt and bargain together when we could, and we always had our eye out for interesting pieces when we were traveling apart. I remember David’s smile of triumph one day in Muscat when he brought home a magnificent Omani bridal headdress in a style neither of us had seen before.”
Marjorie continued to question women she met about their memories of their mothers and grandmothers, about the jewelry’s significance and how and when it was worn. She talked to anthropologists, historians and jewelers and read whatever she could find on the topic.
By 1985 her studies and the collection—most of it packed, unsorted, in boxes—triggered a minor epiphany. Newly arrived in Damascus for another tour of duty in the Middle East, she and David were expecting a visiting United States senator for dinner and were dismayed because none of their household goods had been delivered and their walls were bare. In a last-minute effort, they had large boards cut and covered in burgundy velvet, attached part of the collection to them and hung the boards on the walls. “It was remarkable,” she says. “We stood back and suddenly we could see the similarities and differences between pieces, we could recognize motifs and decorative elements, and we realized we had, indeed, a very representative collection of jewelry, even though we still had much to learn about identifying different regional styles.”
In Damascus, they met the antique dealer George Obeid, a historian of crafts, fabric, furniture and jewelry, who, along with Qahwaji, aided them in their research. Given jewelry’s movement with Bedouins, or with pilgrims from throughout the region who were traveling to the Arabian Peninsula and selling or bartering it en route, many pieces the Ransoms acquired were found far from their places of origin. Silversmiths readily crossed borders, and villagers and nomads would often travel a long way to purchase jewelry from favorite craftsmen. In addition, Obeid points out, Damascene and other city silversmiths traveled long distances to sell their work, especially when the harvest was in and farmers had the capital to make purchases.
Certain regional styles, however, are so distinctive as to be unmistakable. In Yemen, where the silversmith’s craft has been practiced for centuries, mainly by Jewish smiths working for both Jewish and Muslim clients, highly skilled techniques—delicate filigree, granulation and geometric shapes such as diamonds and discs applied symmetrically to flat surfaces to build up rich layers of decoration—are readily recognizable.
Jewelry historian and anthropologist Joyce Diamanti, in the catalog of the Bead Museum exhibition, points out that a large silver disk with minimal engraving, known as an adrim, is unique to 20th-century jewelry from Egypt’s Siwa Oasis. Qahwaji says that Syrian silver chains, called “Aleppo” or “Arab,” are easily identifiable—yet, he stresses, correctly attributing origins to silver jewelry in general is difficult and comes only from long years of handling and studying many pieces and listening to the stories that go with them. “Understanding the jewelry is important,” he says, “because understanding culture is important. If you understand culture, you understand history, and if you understand history, you understand politics.”
Marjorie Ransom is dedicated to this continual process of learning and understanding. She still proudly wears that first bracelet she bought in Damascus—only now she knows definitely that it is not North African but Turkish. And while the exhibition at the Bead Museum was a spur to begin the serious work of cataloging and annotating her entire collection of jewelry, she is eager to continue the kind of field research that will enhance its context and history—and is doing so now in a research project in Yemen.
“I wonder about the silversmiths who made this jewelry,” she says. “How did they develop their designs? Since they could not meet their women clients directly, how were a woman’s preferences incorporated into their products? This question of creating or responding to market tastes is intriguing.”
Her plan is to have the exhibition travel to museums and university galleries around the United States, and her ambition, ultimately, is to find a permanent public home for it where it can offer Americans a window into the rich and enduring culture the jewelry has enabled her to know so well.
She has another, and more poignant, reason also. David Ransom died suddenly at the end of last year, mourned by the many friends he made in the Middle East, and missed for his insightful and understanding commentary on Middle Eastern affairs in his post-State Department life as news commentator and successful businessman. Marjorie sees the collection as a fitting memorial to him. “I feel David at my elbow as I work on it,” she says. “The collection is truly a reflection of our joint interests and efforts,” just as surely as it is a magnificent testament to their shared lives of service and adventure in the Middle East.
This article appeared on pages 8-16 of the November/December 2004 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.