Saturday, July 30, 2011

Yemen Bride Bracelets - a Pair in Silver

A significant cultural item: a pair of bracelets in coin silver made as bridewealth (dowery). See The Jews of Yemen by Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper in the series Highlights of the Israel Museum Collection for a more complete story than I can offer here.

The workmanship is remarkable, the artisan used many of the special motifs common in the Yemen jewelry of the 19th century: twisted wire, beaded wire and braided wire detail fill in the spaces between the three rows of attached diamond shapes and the fine granulation. 

The material used for making up a dowery were the melted down Maria Theresa thalers of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the standard for quality silver in that era and was used in trade between Europe and Arabia and Western Asia. 

For the dowery, the bride was literally weighed down with silver ornamentation. Rings were made in matching pairs; so with bracelets and anklets. Bracelets were made to fit along each arm, even above the elbow. 

The Jewish silversmiths were removed from Yemen when Israel was established, so this work is no longer being done in Yemen. Complete pieces, especially matching pieces are very rare, so this would be an important addition to your collection or your adornment.

Measurements: 1.96in at widest inside point, with 1in opening for putting on wrist. Diameter of silver work is 0.65in. Total weight of pair: 4 oz.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Black Coral Prayer Beads with Silver Inlay

This is a string of prayer beads from a prosperous, devout person in Yemen. They are so worn that the silver inlay is smooth and pleasant to the touch. The beads extend 36 inches along a fine leather cord with plenty of room for the beads to slide along as the prayers are said. There are 99 beads, two separator drop beads and a longer drop bead at the joining of the string. Once upon a time, there would have been a tassel attached to the long drop bead, but it is worn away and now there is only a knot in the fine leather cord.

This item comes from Yemen, but it was not made there. The center for fabricating this kind of prayer rope was Istanbul, Turkey, capital of the Ottoman Empire, during the 1800s. The silver used in such work had to be up to the Empire's standards. By the early 1900s, the Empire was gone but these antique prayer ropes have lasted. 

Bead measurements 9mm (0.34in) long; 8mm (0.32in) diameter; total weight a bit over 75 grams.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Yemeni All-silver Necklace

This is typical of the bridal jewelry worn as bride wealth in Southern Arabia from very early times. The components of this necklace were fabricated in the shops of the Jewish silversmiths of Yemen somewhere between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. The beads are unremarkable, being simple coin silver beads made from melting the Maria Theresa thalers to make the ornaments that Yemeni women wore especially on their wedding day and at the time of the celebration of the birth of their children. 

They also wore some pieces of their jewelry at all times, since they did not have safes in which to store their wealth. As they needed some medium of exchange to buy food or clothing, they could simply remove a piece from the jewelry and trade it for the desired goods. Many Yemeni necklaces are somewhat out of balance, because a piece has been removed for that purpose. 

This necklace illustrates that practice. But there is an even more interesting story in the amulets. These are the most intricately worked items on a Yemeni necklace. They are prayer tubes that look like a mini scroll container. Prayers or blessings might be inserted in the amulet when it was fabricated, or the amulet itself was considered to have spiritual significance, even without the written prayers in it. 

This particular necklace has three amulets attached to the plaques (the large tabular beads) that guide the strands of beads to the end pieces. The end pieces receive special care in their fabrication. 

All the features on this necklace are fabricated in the Yemeni style: they are heavily decorated with silver grains (small drops of molten silver) or they are made with delicate wire filigree, or both methods are used to decorate the parts of the necklace. 

The chain and the fastener are handmade in Yemen, and are typical of that era and region.
More information at

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Buffing Silver

The last several days I have spent spreading out on my dining table many pieces of  intriguing Yemeni jewelry and a few strings of glass trading beads from Africa as well.   In preparation for photographing all the pieces, the silver should be rubbed gently with a rouge cloth and then a finishing cloth.  This brings out the metal glow -- silver or silver with gold wash -- but leaves the antique patina.

My fingers become discolored from the oxidation that is removed in the buffing process, but it is a pleasure to see the soft shine of the pieces as they are laid out awaiting their photo op.

Sometimes buffing offers a real surprise.  A piece picked up for a song from a Yemeni owner or from a dealer will sometimes reveal itself as high quality silver.  Two days ago, I unpacked the metal components of a very old typical necklace from Yemen.  Not expecting much, I wrapped the rouge cloth around my index finger and brushed lightly across the plaque (a separator for multiple strands of beads) and the q'tub (amulet) hanging from it.

The gold wash lighted up under just a slight brushing by the rouge cloth.  By the time I had finished the 3 plaques with fertility symbols hanging from them and the triangular end pieces also with extra symbols, I realized that this was a special piece.  The quality of the workmanship matches the quality of the metal.  The plaques have lines of granulation setting off small inlays of coral, and an added diamond shape that is widely used in Yemen jewelry.

The fertility symbols are very detailed as well.  I replaced three tiny inlaid pieces of coral that had fallen out of a plaque and a q'tub.  Otherwise the metal components are all there for someone to add beads to an important cultural artifact of  19th century Yemen.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beit Baws Beads

Perhaps the most famous, and certainly among the most beautiful, silver beads of Yemen were those fabricated in the House (shop) of Baws and are known as Bawsani beads.  Here is an example of the delicate filigree work, the fine granules of silver applied just so, and the lacy connecting of one piece of wound silver wire to the next.  All of this produces an almost perfect round or oval bead with an inspiring combination of shape, texture, lights and shadows.

Here is a view from the top.  Even after a century of wear, the bead is seen to be harmonious in its parts and durable in its service.

A string of such beads around a bride's neck makes more than a status or fashion statement, but also declares the buyer's appreciation for beauty and good workmanship.