At the southern tip of the Arabian Desert, Yemen juts into the Gulf of Aden, which links the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. For thousands of years, Yemen served as a crossroads of land and sea routes between Africa, Asia, and Europe, for the movement of goods and peoples and the diffusion of technology, art, religion, and ideas. This cross-cultural contact left its mark on Yemeni jewelry, which incorporates a great variety of motifs with varied meanings. Historically, the finest work was crafted by Jewish silversmiths, largely for Muslim clients, not only in Yemen but throughout the Middle East. They used precious materials from distant sources and metalworking techniques that go back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Legend says that Jewish traders first settled in Yemen in the 10th century BC, after King Solomon sent ships south to fabled Ophir in pursuit of trade, and the Queen of Sheba returned the visit, traveling to Jerusalem via camel caravan, bearing gold, gemstones, and those prized Yemeni products, frankincense and myrrh. In time, Jews came to flourish as craftsmen in Yemen, excelling as gold- and silversmiths until the mid-20th century. Then, in 1949-50, virtually all the Jews in Yemen left for Israel. Before departing, however, Jewish smiths trained their Arab counterparts, who strive to carry on the proud legacy of Yemeni craftsmanship. While it is difficult to determine the origin and dates of much Middle Eastern jewelry, Yemeni pieces are distinguished by their quality, and to this day, the finest are praised as “Jewish work.”
Forms and Functions
Besides enhancing a woman’s beauty, traditional Yemeni jewelry reflects her cultural environment. It shows what ethnic or religious group she belongs to, whether her husband is poor or prosperous, which town or village she is from or whether she is a nomadic Bedouin. The uses of traditional jewelry afford insights into the patterns of traditional life. Personal ornaments play a role in the age-old rituals of securing a spouse, celebrating a marriage, welcoming a birth, protecting against evil, and praising God.
Marriage contracts were customarily sealed with bridewealth, mainly silver jewelry. Provided by the groom, it becomes the wife’s property, ensuring her economic security. From time to time she may add to it with a gift from her husband, by making household economies, or by using the proceeds from the sale of a rug she has woven to acquire more jewelry. In time of need, a woman may sell some of her jewelry.
The most spectacular array of jewelry was traditionally worn by Jewish brides of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Swathed in gold brocade, the young bride, who may not have even reached puberty, was so weighted with jewelry she could scarcely move. Rings encircled her fingers, bracelets encased her arms, and strands of huge gilt silver beads, called dugag, enveloped her body from neck to waist, which was enclosed in a silver belt hung with bells; ropes of pearls and gold pendants hung from her temples; an elaborate bib necklace, called a labbeh, wreathed her chin; and crowning all was a high tiara framed in fresh flowers and layered with shimmering white pearls, precious red coral, black beads, and gold filigree dangles. Called tishluk lu’lu’, this towering headdress gave its name to the entire ensemble. Other festive occasions when a woman displayed pieces from her jewelry collection included the henna painting ceremony before the wedding and the Sabbath when she first received visitors after childbirth.
Huge silver spheres adorned with barley patterns were the most prominent feature of the wedding regalia of Jewish brides. These silver beads were popular among Muslim women, but ordinarily Jewish women didn’t wear them. They preferred jewelry with wheat designs. On her wedding day, however, the Jewish bride wore many strands of these beads, both plain and gilt silver—she was embellished all over with barley motifs. The use of these beads in the Jewish wedding ensemble enlisted the power of the “Other” for added protection of the bride during the perilous transition from girlhood to womanhood. Conversely, pregnant Muslim women often wore Jewish jewelry to ward off the evil eye and ensure a healthy child. In yet another example of cross-dressing, so to speak, the traditional finery of Yemeni Muslim brides included large cubical beads of amber; these beads were also sought after by Jewish mothers, who hung them round the necks of their children or sewed them to their clothing as amulets.
Bedouin and village women wear a great deal of jewelry while milking goats, weaving rugs, grinding grain, or kneading dough. Massive silver bracelets are always worn in pairs, sometimes five pairs or more. Although they look heavy, they are usually hollow and are relatively light. Anklets are also worn in pairs, while multiple rings adorn fingers and toes. Nose ornaments include large beaded hoops hung with dangles, long pendants inlaid with glass beads, and silver studs in the nostrils. Hoops hung with dangles also decorate ears; often multiple hoops are worn through the ears or suspended from a chain that passes over the head.
Protective ornaments have many forms and functions. Cylindrical or rectangular amulet cases are also sewn to children’s clothing, and a woman’s necklace may incorporate several such cases. The cylindrical cases are called hirz by Muslims and ktab (pl. kutub) by Jews. Some may be opened for the insertion of sacred verses from the Koran or Jewish scripture. Others are left empty and soldered shut. The cases themselves are believed to be invested with amuletic powers that not only can turn away malevolent forces but can attract benevolent ones. Similarly, reciting the 99 attributes of God while counting their 99 prayer beads, the Muslim faithful invoke divine protection as well as divine blessings. And as a woman moves through the bazaar, the tinkle of tiny bells and swish of silver dangles is protective as well as seductive, as is the aroma of scented jewelry intensified by body heat—sound, motion, and smell can repel mischief-making jinn and at the same time attract the glance of passing admirers.
Motifs and Meanings
Rich in symbolism, the opulent ornamentation of Yemeni jewelry echoes Islamic expression in other arts—the lush floral patterns of Persian rugs, the dazzling geometric designs of tile mosaics, the curving lines of calligraphy. Animal and human motifs are rare and highly stylized. A notable exception is the eye, which is widely used to counter the malevolent gaze of the evil eye and deflect it from the wearer. Reduced to its essence in the form of dots and circles, the eye often embellishes dark wood prayer beads in the form of silver piqué work or adorns a silver pendant as a luminous gemstone cabochon. The hand of Fatima also turns away evil, as do arrowlike triangles and swinging tassels. The sun, the moon, and the stars are Islamic astral motifs. The six-pointed Star of David is a mystical Jewish symbol.
Many motifs recall primeval forms of human adornment—seeds, fruit, leaves, flowers. These symbols of nature endure in Yemeni jewelry as stylized rosettes, foliage, grain, almonds, berries, and mangos. While their specific meanings are often unknown, these motifs are associated with general well-being. Grain and pomegranates, bursting with juicy seeds, are symbols of abundance and fertility. Wheat and barley are also linked to women’s daily task of grinding grain to make bread, the basic staple of the Yemeni diet. The Jewish preference for wheat motifs can be traced to the Bible, which tells that barley was used as fodder for Solomon’s horses. Jewish silversmiths were learned craftsmen who knew the significance of each motif—its magical attributes and connection to Koranic or Talmudic texts—and they matched their designs to their clients. Today much of this lore has been lost, and the meaning of many motifs lies buried in the collective unconscious.
Materials and Techniques
Every large village once had a resident silversmith who made jewelry for all patrons. Some craftsmen traveled the surrounding desert to serve the nomadic Bedouin. But over time, silversmiths, like much of the population, migrated to the cities where they set up shop in the suq as both artisan and merchant, with clients all over the Middle East. The largest community of Yemeni smiths congregated in Sana’a, the capital, where several hundred Jews once worked in the silver suq. Their silver supply consisted in large part of recycled silver. In the Arab world, jewelry is not heirloomed, that is, a woman’s bridewealth is not passed down from generation to generation. Rather, when she dies her jewelry is sold to the smith, and the proceeds from such a sale can help a family purchase new jewelry for a new bride when the occasion arises. For his part, the smith puts the jewelry in a burn bag and melts it down as needed to replenish his silver supply.
Since the mid-1700s, the principal source of the silver used in Middle Eastern jewelry has traditionally been silver coins, preponderantly the Maria Theresa thaler, named for the Queen of Bohemia and Hungary. Because the thaler’s standards of weight and fineness were rigorously maintained, it became a standard of value that is widely used in Asia and Africa. After Maria Theresa died in 1780, coins bearing that date continued to be struck. About 200 million thalers were estimated to be in circulation in Yemen and Ethiopia in 1900. And to this day they continue to be struck and Yemeni smiths continue to draw on this huge pool of thaler, with its stable silver content of about 85%, to regulate the quality of their silver. Recently Middle Eastern smiths have accessed yet a third source of supply, silver ingots from China.
The clientele of the smiths is varied, and they vary their work accordingly, tailoring it to their customers’ resources as well as their tastes. Since Bedouins are generally poorer than farmers, Bedouin jewelry is generally made of lower grade silver than the jewelry of settled folk, and red glass, or sometimes jasper or carnelian, is used instead of coral. While the jewelry Yemeni smiths made for their Muslim peers was often similar to what they made for their fellow Jews, they tended to lavish more time and effort on Jewish pieces, crafting elaborate filigree elements, for example, instead of using easily made stamped parts. For pieces commissioned by high-ranking Muslim clients, Jewish jewelers worked in high karat gold instead of gilt silver or simply silver, and used pearls, Mediterranean coral, and high-quality gemstones.
The tools of the Yemeni silversmith’s trade have remained essentially the same over thousands of years of Middle Eastern metalworking. His basic toolkit is simple: a wooden block, a hammer and anvil, along with chisels to cut, awls to pierce, punches, stamps, and burnishers, as well as a blowpipe or bellows, a melting crucible, and molds of some sort.
Fundamental to his work is the fabrication of flat sheet, grains and shot, and wire. These are the basic elements from which he constructs his jewelry. He then turns to his vast repertoire of techniques to create rich surface ornamentation: hammering and annealing; casting and soldering; repoussé, chasing, and engraving; embossing, punching, and stamping; appliqué and openwork; granulation and filigree. Using a dapping block and a punch, the smith creates hemispheres from silver sheet. Then soldering two hemispheres together he creates beads which he subsequently decorates, using wirework and granulation. He also uses granules and shot as structural elements to reinforce joints of sheet or wire. In addition, he makes small cubical beads called tut entirely from shot soldered together. Using wire of various gauges, he makes chains, loops, links, and rings to assemble the various components.
Traditional Yemeni jewelry is made up of myriad components, rich in detail and decoration. Besides being used to link elements together and suspend pendants, chain is also used for decoration: short lengths serve as fringe, long lengths swing from headdresses, and delicate links are an integral ornamental feature of bib necklaces. Yemeni jewelry is also characterized by a profusion of pendants, plaques, bells, and dangles in many different shapes. As many as five or more amulet cases may be strung along with other components in a single necklace. Exotic coins are also prominently displayed—Ottoman, Arab, French, Indian, but especially Maria Theresa thaler. They are hung from necklaces either as simple pendants or embellished with dangles. Flat surfaces provide a perfect canvas for smiths who find empty space abhorrent, and pendants, caps, plaques, spacers, and triangular terminals are typically encrusted with abstract and vegetal ornamentation created by granulation, appliqué, and filigree.
Pearls from the Persian Gulf and gemstone beads, especially red-orange carnelian from India, are occasionally used in Yemeni jewelry. But coral of various colors, most notably precious red coral from the Mediterranean, has always been the material of choice to complement the silversmith’s work. In addition, red is a symbol of beauty and youth and is believed to have protective powers. Coral beads are often interspersed with another distinctive Yemini bead, a solid silver octagonal bead the size of a pea, called mithamminah. Coral pieces are also set in bezels on amulet cases or plaques. Today precious coral has grown scarce and become expensive, however, and red glass beads and cabochons are often used instead. Other exotic materials that Middle Eastern jewelers have had access to since times of the Silk Road include amber from the Baltic, ivory from Africa, gold, and gemstones. Among the more humble materials they sometimes use in jewelry are cowrie shells, faux amber, and scented beads made of local plant materials, such as myrhh and cloves.
Traditional Jewelry Today
In the rapidly evolving Middle East, much has changed in the six decades since the Jewish smiths left Yemen. Traditional silver jewelry is disappearing, as is the traditional world in which it was created and used. The demand is now for gold. Upscale urban dwellers’ desire for gold is usually satisfied by contemporary jewelry made in Italy. while rural folk’s lust for glitter lures them to cheap costume jewelry. And although some of the traditional wedding finery is worn on special occasions, for the marriage ceremony, the bride usually wears a modern white wedding gown.
Because Yemeni families do not heirloom a deceased woman’s bridewealth but sell it to smiths who recycle the silver, examples of traditional silver jewelry more than a generation old are rare. In large urban suqs, however, a few elderly silversmiths remain. Masters of their craft, they continue to use traditional techniques to produce traditional designs in the face of modernity, mass production, and a dwindling clientele. And if a knowledgeable collector or dealer is lucky he may find a good piece in stock, or better yet, she may be allowed to rummage through the burn bag and save a treasure or two from the fire.