Monday, May 28, 2012

The Allure of Coral

Coral was traded as a valuable item for two or three thousand years before it became a gem that was bought with money.  The trade routes that became known as the Incense Road and the Silk Road were were well established migrant tracks across great lengths of many present-day nations by the third millennium B.C.  Trading was a natural outgrowth of the movement of peoples.  As they uprooted from one place, they took with them the possessions that they had accumulated, whether animals, beads, pots, skins, plant seeds, or chunks of minerals from the earth, such as pigments.  As they moved they no doubt often exchanged some of their valuables for other valuable items along the way.

This is how coral from the Mediterranean, the richest source of that organic bead material, came along the trade route that ended in what we now know as China.  As the owners of the coral passed from Italy to China through Greece, Persia, and the through the steppes of Central Asia or through India into what is now northwestern China, they could use their alluring gems of coral as items of trade.  As a result, as Christina del Mare writes

*The peoples of Arabia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tibet, Mongolia and India were all captivated by its allure: its blood-red colour, enigmatic essence, indecipherable origin and durability. *
I would add that coral was probably just as valuable in Iran (ancient Persia) as it was in India and among the various Arabic and Turkic peoples.  
In particular, the people of Yemen used it in designing the labbeh, the bride wealth that each woman wore on her wedding day.  
You can see such a piece from the early 1900s here: 

Antique Yemen Silver and Coral Beads with Mini Amulets

A yet more elaborate labbeh with more and varied sizes and shades of natural coral gemstones is shown below.  The five stranded coral bridal necklace has the added value of Bawsani work, the products of Beit Baws, the community of silversmiths that created the most desired beads and amulets in Southern Arabia. The very fine filigree and granulation on these pieces is no longer being duplicated in the quality and quantity with which the Beit Baws produced them.  

Old Yemen Silver Filigree Granulation Plaques Amulets Bawsani Beads

When we first started our collection of Middle Eastern jewelry, we included many ounces of loose coral, because of its alluring qualities.  As del Mare states in the same essay,  
* has always combined myth and magic, for its bright red colour has fascinated people in the East and West alike. Its mysterious origins and its ambiguous nature, combining the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, have given rise to conjecture and myths, reinforcing its mythical potency....*

As part of our effort to lay in store some extra coral, we collected these three strings of coral displayed as a necklace but in fact is not securely or neatly strung together.  It is offered at my sales point at the price of 3 strings of coral, not as a necklace and therefore, you can have an idea of the current value of coral:

Old Rose Mediterranean Coral Beads Three Strands

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Merchant's Sizzle Words: Kazakh and Bokhara

When I went shopping during the two years I lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, I always heard two words spoken by the merchants in a tone of awe: Kazakh and Bokhara.  The Kazakh style silver jewelry was greatly admired, and the Bokhara carpets and tapestries were prized.  The Teke tribe's gilded jewelry was in a different category and was not such a commonly displayed item while I was in Afghanistan.

The Kazakh design is usually a repetition of pyramidal shapes built up by tiny dots of silver applied to an otherwise smooth surface, most often forming a circular or oval frame around a central gemstone setting.  The technique of forming patterns with tiny dots of silver is called granulation (making grains).  Occasionally the piece would be lightly gold-washed, but not gilded in the same manner that the Teke tribe gilded their silver jewelry.

A simple pendant that I purchased in Afghanistan illustrates the design.

Afghan Antique Silver Filigree Granulation Pendant Coral Carnelian

The Bokhara jewelry is very different from the Kazakh.  Uzbekistan jewelry makers do not follow rigid patterns as their rug makers usually do, nor do they always design the same motifs and gemstones for their more gaudy ornaments.  Here is an example from my own collection:

Bokhara Uzbekistan Pendant Traditional Turkmen Art of Central Asia

The Uzbek Turkoman artisan did, however, produce more subtly decorated pieces of jewelry.  I have another piece from Uzbekistan in my collection that is a delicate enameled floral design on the hollow half-globe of silver.  
I have to admit that some of the subtlety of the piece is removed by the tinkling bells added to the pendant.  They do announce the wearer's approach.  

Bukhara silver enamel cloisonne pendant with dangling bells

International visitors are welcome at my web site to browse, to gather information or to purchase items.  The higher value items are offered on a lay-away (a reserved item paid for in installments) plan.  Come for a visit!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Yemen Dowry Necklace Restored

Restored to Beauty and Strength for Service to Another Bride

From the Past: Yemen Silver Filigree and Granulation Plaques with Amulets and Bawsani Filigree Drop Beads

Restoring an antique piece differs from merely restringing and certainly is very different from re-designing an old piece in a contemporary fashion.  In this piece I found that the three amulets and the large central plaque were still intact and together.  The end pieces matched, but I do not recall whether they were with the plaque and amulets.  The filigree drop beads and the silver metal spacer beads were collected from the same time and place.  They were all made in Yemen some time before the 1940s.  

Some of the coral was missing.  Enough was replaced to make this piece as much like the original as possible.  

This is a restored antique kirdan necklace commonly known as bridal dowry jewelry. The workmanship of the Jewish silversmith who created these pieces around 75 years ago is astounding. His tools were simple but the purpose was so high: the blessing of a marriage. He was inspired to create these matching pieces which held 5 strings of silver and coral beads. 

The small beads did not have to be so fine, as the original ones were probably not. But the first restorer of this piece some decades ago hung tiny dainty Bawsani type filigree drop beads, one on each of the middle strands, just to show the value of the necklace. 

Over the years the strings wore through, the piece fell apart again. Most of the coral was still with the silver pieces, so it was possible to restore the lazem/kirdan necklace after rummaging through my stray bead trays for my old Mediterranean coral pieces that we had collected over the years. 

You will note that the central plaque had six holes to divide the strands, but the end plaques had only five, though they are perfectly matched in design to the central plaque. Note also that the three amulets also match closely in design. At some point in the long past, some of the attachments on the amulets may have been replaced with a different shape than the original. All the metal pieces are old Yemeni pieces. The coral comes from the same source as the Yemen coral came from: the Mediterranean, possibly off the North African coast. 

In restoring the piece, I wanted to make it as secure as possible on the string I used, so it now hangs on nylon coated steel and should not fall apart for another hundred years at least. I randomly tested the coral I replaced by checking to see if it effervesced in vinegar or lemon juice. It reacted as coral is supposed to react by blowing tiny bubbles in the acidic juice. 

Coral is about 75 grams. 
Length of necklace = 24.5 in (62 cm)
Central Plaque = 1.25 in (3 cm) x 3 in (7.5 cm) including pendants