Thursday, December 29, 2011

Happy Birthday Mongolia, 100 Years Old Today

The Khans from Mongolia ruled a great part of the earth from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.  But the same peoples had come out of the mountain home at least 400 years before the Empire was established in its farthest boundaries.  They settled much of the area where their rule became law in the fourteenth century.  Mongolia then had its turn as the ruled rather than the ruler until a hundred years ago when it gained its independence from China on December 29, 1911.

The Mongol tribes came out of the Altai mountains, which form a partition for China, Russia and Kazakhstan.  The descendants of these horseback riders from the mountains   are still spread far and wide throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia.  From Central Europe and Turkey in the West to China in the East, from Russia and Kazakhstan in the North to the Northern part of India in the South.  The descendants of these people are still the major population in many of these countries.  They still add to the artisanal output of those nations from wonderful foods such as lamb and healthy dairy products to highly prized collectible carpets and jewelry.  Here is a photograph showing just one example

  The textile is home spun, hand dyed and hand loomed silk.  Then it is laboriously decorated almost over its complete surface with colorful silk threads in the old tribal patterns.  The asyk pendant is the symbol of the family, the two large heart shapes representing the father and mother and the small shape between them represent the child.  It is essentially a life symbol.  The ram's horn shapes on top of the asyk represent the tribal ancestors.  

The Turkic language separates into many different dialects; and they are written in different alphabets, in Chinese characters, in the Russian Cyrillic letters. It was at one time written in the Sanskrit-derived alphabet in India, which included parts of Pakistan and most of Afghanistan. By this time in Iran, they were writing Persian in the Arabic script;  in fact, in many parts of the Empire, the languages were written in Arabic script.  Finally the Turks of Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet in the 1920s, and Turkish became the first Ural-Altaic language to be written in the Latin letters that I am using to type this blog.  

Again I say Happy Birthday, Mongolia!  

You can see more Turkoman antique silver jewelry at

Monday, December 19, 2011

Turkoman Cloak and its Clasp, or Turkmen, Chapan and Capraz

The Turkoman or Turkmen, names of the same people in English, make lined, handwoven silk cloaks for the males, females and children.   There is a certain ceremonial flair in the traditional male dress up clothing, and the women's robes are long and loose and profusely decorated. The embroidery that they add to the handwoven silk or cotton, or even store-bought cotton cloth, makes the feminine clothing very attractive.  The feminine headcoverings are sometimes spectacular, usually including a large piece of intricately wrought gilded silver.  We will discuss the headdresses in a later post; today we will show the use of the capraz on the male's dress-up cloak or chapan,  and for the ladies we discuss the canne as on the chapan in the photo below, and the flower collar or guljaka in the second photo below.

First, you might want to see what a chapan, the Turkmen or Turkoman female's dressy cloak, looks like.

Another variation of the embroidered silk clothing for the Turkoman female is a traditional  garment called the chyrpy.  This piece of clothing looks like the chapan, but there is one big difference. The  sleeves are not meant to wear on the arms but to hang from the shoulder seams and be drawn to the back of the cloak and banded together at about what appears to be a waistline when looking at the pattern for the garment.   The long, narrow sleeves with no opening for the hands are bound together with a fancily embroidered strip of silk or a braided, tasseled cord.  The garment is then worn over the head, not around the shoulders or the body.  

The chapan for the male is just as beautifully put together from narrow hand loomed strips of silk.  This garment is worn in the conventional manner, wrapped around the body and held together in front with a sash, a belt or by a silver fastener such as the one in the photo above.  
The fastener so illustrated in the photo above is the canne, a linking together of beautiful silver panels, often gilded and with pendants hanging from the bottom of the panels.  

But if the chapan wearer has the option of being very ostentatious in his symbolic jewelry, he will choose to fasten his embroidered silk chapan with a pair of magnificent capraz, such as these:

The outside point would be sewn to the fabric of the cloak, while a braided cord would secure the inside edge of the two pieces at the front opening of the chapan.  Click here to see more information on this complete capraz. 

Now as to the ladies' dresses, we know that they will be long and loose, but did I tell you that they will also be long-sleeved and high necked?  You probably already knew that.  Let's see what a flower collar or guljaka is.  
  The Turkoman woman wears this impressive piece of gilded silver as a brooch clasped or laced to the top opening of her cloak or tunic, just at collar level.  For that reason the Turkic name of this piece translates into English as flower collar.   In this photo it is shown on a woman's shawl of handwoven silk with rich, fine silk embroidery in the ancestor symbol pattern.  The shawl is made from the same kind of silk as the male and female garments of the finest quality. 

We will continue the discussion of traditional Turkoman adornment for future posts.  

Contact me for further information on the availability of similar items, or browse through the online shop at Crafts of the Past at Artfire.  The shop includes Turkoman, Kazakh, Afghan and Uzbeki items and Yemen silver pieces.  Most of the Turkoman and the Yemen pieces are from around 1900 or before, while some of the Afghan, Kazakh and Uzbeki may date from the first half of the 1900s.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tribal Does Not Equal Rural

In the Western world we think of tribal jewelry as primitive, produced in the desert or mountains, far away from cities or larger towns.  But in Central Asia, tribes usually inhabit certain regions of the steppes or mountains or deltas.  Each region will have its urban center where civic matters are addressed and the bulk of the commerce is transacted.

Sometimes the center is the capital of the nation that contains the tribes or at least a part of several tribes.  Tribes do not fit neatly into boundaries.  Think of the native Americans in Alaska or Canada and the Pacific Northwest.  That is the picture in Central Asia.

However, the urban center usually has the greater advantage when the artisan wishes to produce a product with an organic unity, such as an important piece of jewelry.  I have posted several times on the symbols and their meanings expressed in silver and gilded silver jewelry among the Turkoman tribes.  Here is an expression of their reverence for a mountain symbol:
Probably produced from an urban tribal silversmith.

The reason I would guess that the piece in the photo above came from an urban silversmith is that it puts to full use the specialties required to yield a unified expression in silver of the Turkoman mindset regarding the ancestral mountain, the source of the Turkoman people.  First, let me say that this is only half of what the silversmith created as the full expression.  This is one of the hair pieces that a woman wears pinned into her braid or her veil at a point just above each ear.  Such pieces are created in pairs.  I have the piece that matches this one.  

The Turkoman people like replication.  Not only of the symbolic jewelry pieces themselves, so often produced in pairs, but of the motifs carried out inside the exterior expression.  See all the smaller mountain shapes made of silver grains dropped patiently and uniformly again and again expressing the ancestral pyramid shape.  What would you guess the opposite side of this piece looks like?  Surprise!  it looks just like this side.  They are two identical pieces except for the stones in the small rosette, joined to make a hollow silver hair or veil ornament that respects the source of the tribe.  

The pendant in the photo below is a rural piece from Afghanistan (one of the nations that contains a part of a few of the Turkoman tribes).  This pendant reveals its rural craftsmanship in its lack of a specialist to inscribe the water and floral symbols in the center of the plaque.  That part of the piece is amateurish, while the rest of the piece is made at a higher skill level.  

It is nevertheless a charming piece, made of good silver and all the parts are crafted skillfully, except for the inscriptions on the inside plaque.  They appear to be indications of where granulated rosettes and filigree should be placed in order to symbolize water and plants, i. e., life symbols.  It stands in an honored position as folk art.

You can see more detailed information on this piece at

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Great Khan's Coinage in the Gandhara Region

Look on a map and find Mongolia, which is shared between Russia and China, and consider that in what the West calls the Middle Ages, the Mongols ruled the largest empire the world has ever known.  It reached from all of Mongolia, all of China, Russia, all the 'stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India - Hindustan), also Armenia, parts of the Balkans and Central Europe, the Holy Land, Turkey, North Africa and the Arabian Gulf.  Under the nominal rule of the Great Khan whose seat was closer to home, there were Khanates (kingdoms) established throughout the empire.

The Shahi Gandhara culture in south Afghanistan-Pakistan became a part of one of the Han, (Khan) Khanates.  The ruler, like other rulers, needed coins; after all, most kings and parliaments do not want to collect tribute (taxes) in the form of eggs or cheese.  The local Khan wanted a proper image for his coinage.  Since every Mongol (Han) conquest had been won from the back of a horse, a horse and a ruler riding it became the natural choice for a symbol of the new ruler in Gandhara.

A coin with a kneeling horse on one side and a rider with a staff mounted on the back of the horse on the opposite side is how the coinage was cast in Gandhara.  Quoting from Wikipedia:

... The Gupta (The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire which existed approximately from 320 to 550 CE and covered much of the Indian Subcontinent.) emperors continued to issue coinage until the 6th century, until waves of invasions from the Huns (Hans, Khans) brought their reign to an end. These Huns themselves issued coinage which was imitated from the earlier prototypes.
Allan & Stern (2008) report on Indian coinage of the Middle Ages:
A notable adaptation of a Hun design was the neat silver coinage of the Shahis of Ghandara, the "bull and horseman" type in the 9th and 10th centuries, (later) extensively imitated by the Muslim conquerors of India and the contemporary minor Hindu dynasties. 

For example, here are the two sides of one of such coins I have in my collection:

The image on the left shows the ruler with a long staff and banner, wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat (in the Gandhara region in the southern part of Afghanistan, that is a very good idea).  
The horse is prancing proudly showing his left leg raised, with a decorated mane and his tail     
 and head carried high.  The image on the right shows the horse kneeling with script above him in an ancient Hindi style.  The horse is already saddled, so it is probably kneeling for the ruler to mount him.  Since in that part of the sub-continent, both camels and elephants knelt to allow the rider to mount, perhaps horses were also trained to kneel?  

To see more particulars on the collection of this coinage that I have, go to 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Turkoman Jewelry Symbols Include Islamic Symbols

As the Mongol conquerors assumed their kingdoms under the great Khan in Central and South Asia in the Late Middle Ages, the Moslem religion was ascendant throughout that region.  The Turkoman people added much of the Moslem spirituality to their own veneration of ancestors and their tribal geographic origins in the symbols of mountains and ancestors: the equilateral triangle mounted on a prayer cylinder with abstract ram's heads decorating the piece.

Up to at least the 1950s, the Turkoman jewelry and their fabric arts were their religious art.  Even their camels and donkeys wore the tribal symbols in silver and sometimes gilded silver jewelry and blankets. The modern-day analog would be the taxi driver who carries the medallion of the name of Allah written in beautiful Arabic calligraphy.  It is doubtful that the medallion could be read, but it is the symbol that all understand as a blessing from Allah.

Our last post was about the Asik, or sometimes written as Asyk, in tripartite form symbolizing the family  but today we can look at a single Asik (my preferred spelling, because it uses the vowel harmony that is typical for the Turkish dialect that I once spoke fairly well).   Here is a photo from a page that tells a fuller story of its symbols:

On the top two gemstones set into the silver you will see crescents and stars, the widely recognized symbol of Islam in its political and religious expression.  The carnelian in the center is an irregular cabochon form.  The gemstone does not show signs of having been replaced, so apparently the original silversmith preferred to use the matching red stone rather than a more golden carnelian that would have been smooth enough to make the intaglio of stars and crescents.  

Of course, the breathtakingly beautiful mosques of Uzbekistan speak above all of the inculturation of the Turkoman to the religion of Islam. 

For more information on Turkoman silver pieces, see my studio at Artfire

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tripartite Asyk as Symbol of Family

This piece is known as gosa-asyk.  The traditional design is an alignment of three plaques suggestive of heart shapes or female bodies.  In the Teke tribe, from which this piece originates, most such pieces have areas that are gilded.  In the tripartite gosa-asyk, between the three heart shapes, it is customary to place separators made of the same material.  In the case above, the pieces actually were cut from the same plate of patterned and gilded silver.  You can see how the pieces fit together by looking at the underside of the piece. 
Both the examples that I have seen of this design of the tripartite gosa-asyk hang on a heavy leather cord which shows signs of long wear, but still very pliable and sturdy.  The silver also is a plate thick enough to resist even intentional force to bend it.  The plate of silver from which this Teke Turkoman family symbol is made is 2.8 mm thick.  

The Turkoman that were interviewed by Dieter and Reinhold Schlechter for their book Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman reported that this is the Turkoman symbol for the family in their minds: Father, Mother and Child.  

There are other jewelry designs that express this mindset: two larger asyk shapes with one smaller squeezed between them and all of them attached to form a solid pendant. 

The heart or anthropomorphic female symbol expressed in the silver asyk is given by the groom's family to their daughter-in-law as a wedding present.  After marriage, the woman attaches the asyk to her two braids, the married woman's traditional hair style.  The Turkoman females wear more hair ornamentation than is typical among women in the Western hemisphere.  In wearing this particular piece, the woman reveals her married status and shows her family's intention to increase the tribe through her fertility.  

Many Turkoman pieces are shown at

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Turkoman Ancestor Commemoration in Gilded Silver Ornaments

The motive or tribal consciousness of the Turkoman is expressed in the ornamentation of their homes, their animals and themselves.  To this day in Turkmenistan, their outdoor bread ovens made of clay bear the ancestral commemorative symbol: the ram's horn.   You will almost certainly see the symbols in the carpets, on the walls of their tents or homes, in the embroidered panels of their chapans (men's cloaks) and the yokes of the women's dresses and the edging of their head covering.  Perhaps the most important place for the symbol is the grave marker.

The wood amulet was worn when they were mountain dwellers.  And the dagdan, an amulet made from the wood of the dagdan tree is still highly prized.  It not only commemorates the spiritual practices of their ancestors, but the trees are still there in the mountains, the origin of the Turkoman.  The dagdan carries the power of the ancestor and of the mountain.

But the ancestor symbol is most striking when we see it mounted atop a gilded silver amulet (prayer box) with the prayers and blessings sealed inside.  Such a piece of jewelry is usually worn by women, just as the wood dagdan is worn by women and children.  Here is an example of a gilded silver amulet (acar bag) made by the Western Yomud tribe in the first third of the 1900s:

The central motif at the top of this amulet has an abstraction of a ram's head, the carnelian serving as the head and the outward curving gilded silver forms are the horns.  That is a very noticeable ram's head when the piece is worn.  More abstract are the embossed forms of the horns surrounding and dividing the carnelians on the front of the amulet.  

You also note that the ram's horn is so decorative that it has a floral quality.  This reveals the Turkoman's instinct to abstract the essence of floral and arboreal forms as well as their beautiful water symbols in pieces such as this: 

The flowing, almost rippling shapes that are purposely not gilded, but remain silver in order  more powerfully to suggest water in movement.  See more about this piece at

Still, the mountain and the ancestor motifs are two of the three most important and most universal symbols among the Turkoman.  In my next blog post, I will discuss their symbols for the family.  

Reference: Dieter and Reinhold Schlechter, Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman, 1983.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Mountain as a Turkoman Motif

The triangular plaque with pendants is as prominent as the dome in the repertoire of the Turkoman silversmith.  The triangle is often backed with a piece with the same cut-out patterns of flora that the front plate has.  This two-layered hollow structure is very common in the best of the Turkoman jewelry pieces.  The photo here shows a good example of this kind of workmanship:

As you will note, the back and the front are almost identical.  But the space in between the two layers is open, as you see the red cloth background through either side.  

Many mountain symbols or *tumar* are made of rather thick, solid silver, often with gold applied to certain parts of the pattern inscribed on the front.  The back of the plate is left plain.  As in this example: 

In these side-by-side comparisons of items that came from the hands of Turkoman silversmiths, perhaps from different tribes, but all hold the same world view, and all express their spirituality with symbols of the mountain of their origins (tumar), the dome (gupba), the family (triple asik), the amuletic tube (bozbend) or the rectangular prayer box (galaj?).  In the case of the tumar/bozbend the mountain symbol and the amuletic tube  are combined for a spectacular piece such as that shown in this photo:

One of the serious studies of Turkoman culture, including the myths and symbols that express the mindset of the traditional Turkoman people, was done by Dieter and Reinhold Schlechter, Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman, 1983.   Copiously illustrated with drawings and photographs of the jewelry being worn by the people, as well as catalog photos from important collections.  It is a fascinating study of a culture that is in its vanishing stages.  

More information on many different examples of Turkoman jewelry from items for everyday wear and also items of museum quality can be found at

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Dome as a Turkoman Motif

Further details on such items available at CraftsofthePast on Artfire.
The dome shape represents, naturally enough, the world as a reflection or the *other half of the sphere* in its relation to the heavens.  It occurs again and again in the old silver jewelry of the Turkoman people.  Here is a durable and imaginative ring, at least 70 years old.  It was old when I collected it in Turkey in 1970.  That is just one instance of the dome motif in my Turkoman jewelry collection.  Here is another:
Further details on such items are  available at:
The pendant above is gilded in the process described in the immediately previous blog post at this site.  It is also decorated with granulation -- domed dots of silver over the curvature of the gilded dome.  The silver objects on chains hanging from the dome reinforce the idea of earthiness.  They are sometimes understood as inverted mountain motifs.  (Schlechter, Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman, 1983).  

In Turkey and Afghanistan, I continued to find instances of the same dome motif in Turkoman jewelry.  In time photos of most of them will find their way into the posts on this blog.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Turkoman Gold on Silver Technique

Unlike a simple gold wash, the Turkoman technique endures for more than  a century, we know from personal experience.   A gold *washing* applied to silver will wear away over time, leaving only a soft glow to the silver piece that has developed patina in the thinly covered spots.   The Turkoman gold-on-silver jewelry in my collection remains resplendent after a hundred years.  

The Turkoman silversmith began with the purest silver available in the form of ingots imported from Russia in general.  At the least they would use melted coins from neighboring countries, standard 0.900 coin silver.  The work then began at the clay hearth built by the metal worker.  The handmade furnace would be fanned with a bellows by an apprentice, usually a pre-teen boy in training to become a silversmith.  The bellows were made of goatskin.  The smithy used simple hand tools, often handmade: a press, pliers, gouges, chisels, punches, hammers, anvils and prybars.  

With this, he could make intricate pieces, heavy in tribal symbolism, paying respect to the mountain, ancestors, and other aspects of his worldview.  The pieces such as the pendant above were made for women, girls and even the children of the tribe.  Men wore silver belts, breastplates, ornate fasteners for their chapans (cloaks), and silver sheaths for daggers.  They also furnished their horses with silver decoration on the blankets and bags hanging on the horses.  

Almost all the Turkoman silver that shows up in present-day collections has some gilding (golding) on it.  Gilding is accomplished with the use of fire.  Thin gold plates are heated red hot and mixed with other metals to stabilize the gold and keep it workable.  Chemicals and minerals are used to prepare the silver surface in the areas that are to be gilded.  Then the gold mixture is rubbed carefully and patiently into the amalgam on the surface of the silver.  The piece of jewelry is then heated again to meld the gold and silver just at the surface of the piece.  Lots of patient heating and rubbing is required for each piece.  In the 150 years record of making such pieces, there must have been at least a million hours spent in preparing these lovely and culturally important pieces, now disappearing into museums and private collections.

Reference: Dieter and Reinhold Schletzer, Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman, 1983.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Symbols of the Turkoman Tribal Jewelry

The Turkoman jewelry by the period from 1850 to 1950 had settled into traditional patterns of expression for the Turkoman (Turko-Mongol) world view.  These patterns prevailed throughout the nations in which the Tukic people were either wandering or settled into cities or cultivated areas.  The Turkoman had spread through that region from about the 1200s, but museums do not have large collections of much earlier pieces made by these once nomadic people.

Let's begin our discussion of Turkoman jewelry by looking at a piece that carries so much obvious symbolism that it can be called an important expression of the totem or amuletic properties in the jewelry of that tribe's culture.
Turkoman gold-washed silver amulet with prayers inside

Before the discussion of symbols begins, let me acknowledge the work of Dieter and Reinhold Schletzer, Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman, 1983 as the source of much of the information I am able to provide on this blog.  

This amulet contains prayers of blessing and protection for the wearer.  They are written on paper and encased between the front panel and a silver backing.  They are still inside though this piece dates from around 1900-1930, made by a member of the Western Yomud tribe.  

The amulet is appropriately filled with ancestor symbols: the ram's horn.  You first see how they are symbolized by the attachments at the top of the amulet: the curved forms between the attachments of the medallion-decorated chain.  Then again the 5 rows of mirror-image ram's horns that divide the carnelian cabochon gemstones.  

Messrs. Schletzer write in the work noted above that "The two main features of Turkoman mythological consciousness until well into the 19th century were an undifferentiated, sacral belief in passive nature gods and the ancestor cult. "

The floral and ram's horns motifs on the piece in the photo reflect that spirituality, especially fitting for a container for prayers - an amulet.

The diagonal cross that divides the ram's horns on this piece is also a powerful symbol used over and over again in their jewelry as an expression of the seasonal cycle and mankind's life cycle.

The Western Yomud tribe had some gifted silversmiths and we will discuss the craft later, but for the moment, we will be discussing the symbolism and providing examples.

For more information on this particular piece, see
CraftsofthePast at

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Link between Yemeni and Turkoman Cultures

The Afghan/Turkoman Wedding Necklace

This kind of eyecatching personal ornamentation was reserved for women at their wedding and for special occasions thereafter in both the cultures under discussion.  You can see similarities in the materials and in the design.  These particular components were all collected and assembled in Afghanistan from the shops in the bazaars of Kabul.  It is all authentic Afghan/Turkoman style ornamentation.  Every part of the necklace was bought there in 1974.  The necklace was assembled based on examples of such necklaces for sale in the shop windows, usually the most collectible (and highly valued) item in the shop.  

The silver is still shiny and bright; the extremely rare old shells are still strong and have proven durable for the hundred or so years that they have decorated a wedding necklace (this particular one only since 1974).  The coral is of Mediterranean origin and would have been bought somewhere along the trade route from Europe into the Himalayas.  Kabul sits at the foot of the High Himalayas and was a very important stop on the route from Europe to China.
The green serpentine is a plenteous Afghan stone, locally called Afghan jade. 

Near the necklace fastening, on each side, there is a double bead, a characteristic of Turkoman silver jewelry.  It is quite rare to find a Turkoman double bead of this age.  The back of the necklace is just as imposing as the front.  The six silver beads at the center of the necklace are actually bells that sound like sleigh bells as the wearer walks.  A woman who wears this kind of necklace is making a fashion statement -- and declaring her status in the tribe.

A wedding necklace that shows the status of the families of the bride and groom, a multi-strand necklace displaying stone, shell, coral and silver beads and the manner of stringing the components together all show obvious similarities.

More information at 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Worthy Necklace for a Yemen Bride of High Value

Remember when you saw the photo of the Yemen bride loaded with her bride wealth?  I will post it again just to remind you of the wedding adornment that a highly valued bride wore in 19th century Yemen:

The necklace that I am now posting a photo of is of a kind that the father or groom would pay dearly for, I am sure, because he had to provide enough Maria Theresa silver thalers to make the necessary amount of beads and a matching number of  thalers as payment to the silversmith.  The Yemeni Jewish silversmith who made this particular necklace is Baws.  In general, the work from Beit Baws (House of Baws) is not signed with the maker's mark, because the work is so distinctive that it has never been matched by someone outside the Bawsani tradition. 

There are 15 filigree beads with granulation and 7 medallions attached to the 7 central beads on the chain, also made of wire filigree on a silver background with rosettes of granulation.

This will be a nice finish to the discussion of Yemen bride wealth jewelry for a while, so that we can turn our attention to the much longer archeological and historical record of the culture and handiwork of the succession of peoples who have inhabited the region that is Western Asia.  

You can find more information on this necklace at

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Announcing the Dispersion of This Fine Collection

I am older now than when I collected these beautiful things.  I am now concentrating on necessities and am ready to disperse the lot to others who will appreciate the cultural artifacts in my collection.

I have had my fun, as they say, and now I must get serious.

So I have linked a couple of web sites at the foot of this page.  They are my sales catalogs on the internet.  I will be adding many, many more items as we have time to unpack and photograph them.

You can have a preview of the places that I have opened:

They are all just a click away ;)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Yemen Coral Necklace with Amulet in Coin Silver (0.900)

Antique Yemen (ca.1900) coral necklace with coin silver (0.900)amulet. The amulet was made by Jewish silversmiths while there was still a sizable Jewish population in Yemen. No such work is being done in that country any more. These pieces are becoming very rare and are finding their way into museums and private collections.
On this particular re-strung old necklace, the coral is very old, shaped by hand and hand-drilled. There are two very small finely granulated coin silver beads, formed in the traditional shapes and by the traditonal methods of the Yemen of its day. There are also two bone beads as spacers.
The necklace has about 11 grams of this old natural-color coral. 

Measurements - Length of necklace: 37.5cm (19 inches). Average diameter of small coral beads: 5mm; larger coral beads: 7mm. Diameter of amulet: 10mm; length : 31mm

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.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Yemen Amber

Amber is used widely in Yemen jewelry.  In fact, one of the Yemeni word for beads in general is the same word used for the substance amber.

One of the favorite ways of stringing amber with silver is this method of capping the bead at each end with a piece of delicately worked silver.  Note below:

Amber is treated in many ways in order to provide variety in the appearance of the jewelry.  Some amber may be a rather chalky pale yellow, formed into large cubes and featured as a string of only 1 or 3 chunks of such amber on a necklace of large silver globes.  The more refined amber may be narrow tubular brown amber with 4 or 6 longitudinal facets cut and polished then strung with small, silver filigree pieces and featuring the q'tub as the major piece on the string.  As shown above, this dark red translucent amber that will still give off the resin fragrance when rubbed is greatly to be desired and is appropriately strung with custom-sized caps.   The natural amber that is a golden yellow, some more translucent than others, is also prized and strung as beads without much silver or is often treated with the custom-fabricated caps.  

Yemen has since centuries before Christ yielded prize resins such as frankincense and myrrh from its trees.   Amber is an even more ancient product of the resinous plants of  Yemen.  

Like coral, amber is a native of Yemen.  We will discuss the coral beads in the next post.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Unique Amulet for a Special Bride

A very rare, if not absolutely unique, made
for a highly honored bride

The painstaking design and fabrication that went into the this piece, the packing of the prayers into the box amulet, different from all the conventional q'tub form of amulet, the cabuchon red gemstone jewel, and the very highest quality silver and silversmithing show the honor offered the woman who wore this piece.  

This jewelry was also valued by the woman.  It is complete and well-preserved, deserving of a place in a museum.  I have not ever worn it, and probably will not ever wear it.  

For more information on this or any other piece in the album, you may send questions or comments on the blog post or email me at the address shown.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why the Q'tub?

The Q'tub is the cylinder attached to the bottom of the plaque that 
organizes the 5 strands of the necklace.  

It functions as an amulet to hold prayers written on a small piece of thin rolled paper.  However, most amulets do not open, because it is easy to lose the separate piece on the opening end.  The amulet, therefore, in and of itself, stands for the prayers (usually for protection) of the wearer.  

Some amulets (q'tub) are fabricated with the prayer inside and then are closed permanently, so whoever the wearer is from that time on, the person is carrying a prayer within the amulet. Occasionally we find minute traces of the antique paper prayer, while most of it has simply deteriorated into particles.  The bells attached to the amulet tinkle very softly with the movement of the wearer.  They are also a symbol that the wearer is protected from evil forces.  

Some necklaces will be furnished with three or five (always an odd number) such amulets hanging from the bottom strand.  If they are good workmanship, they add to the beauty of the piece of jewelry.  

The small granulated beads that separate the coral are works of art in this piece.  The application of the granules of molten silver by means of a dabber can only be done by masters of the art, especially in pieces this small.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Source of the Silver

The Maria Theresa Coins were minted of high quality silver 
         in the hundreds of millions in Europe in the late 1700s. 

They were used by Europeans to buy Yemen coffee and tons of the silver became the bridewealth of the Yemeni peoples, Muslims and Jews.  Often the coins were simply provided with a loop and bells were dangled from them to then be sewed onto clothing or hung on a chain or cord and worn and used in the bridal dowery.  More often the coins were melted and worked by the Jewish silversmiths into the filigree and granulation motifs of Yemeni craftsmen.  

When the woman who owned the bridewealth passed on, whatever remained of the dowery was often melted down and new jewelry was fabricated from the silver.  So pieces of jewelry were traditional in design but most of the jewelry pieces were not many generations old, only the raw material grew older, was sometimes adulterated to make jewelry of great workmanship but of lower quality silver.   As Yemen's economy declined in relation to that of Europe, the  stretching of the quantity of silver was especially necessary.  Not so many Maria Theresa coins were available to the craftsmen.   For the individual craftsman, it was the quality of the workmanship that was important, and for the bride's father, it was the weight of raw material that was impressive.  So the jewelry continued to be made in abundance.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bracelets for the Bride

The Yemeni bride, if prosperous enough to own or to borrow bracelets, would have matching bracelets on both arms, arranged symmetrically from wrist to elbow.  You will find that some bracelets from Yemen will be very small in diameter.  Moreover, they are usually completely round, not really shaped for the human wrist.  They usually are fastened around the wrist by a hand-threaded screw or by a pin.  Some styles do not enclose the wrist but clamp lightly onto the wrist.

Child-size by American standards, but weighty in 
decorative elements all the way round the 

This very ornamental wedding bracelet has a twin that would be worn for the two most important ceremonies in a woman's life: her wedding and after each time she gave birth.  She would sit in bed surrounded with flowers and adorned in wedding finery while she received visitors during the celebration of each new birth.  

Apart from the important events that are marked by wearing this bracelet, it bears a second cultural significance.  The silversmith who made it signed it with his maker's mark on the most visible component of each of the matching bracelets: the roseate fastener.  For a better view of the signature, go to
click on the View Photos in the right column; you will get a screen showing the album of photos used for this blog.  Click to open the album and scroll to find this image.  Click to enlarge and you can see the Yemen Jewish silversmith's signature written in Arabic script.

We will be noting the signatures on the Yemeni jewelry now that you know to expect them.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Style Elements of Yemen Silver Jewelry

A Wedding Necklace for the Bride's Adornment

An assemblage of pieces of such jewelry as you see on the Yemen bride on the post of May 18, 2011 (see list of posts in left column).  The pieces are re-assembled by jewelry dealers from antique components collected from the village bazaars (suqs) in Yemen.  

The piece reflects the cultural fondness for the contrast between the cool sheen of silver and the warm glow of the organic coral beads.  The red coral beads are a rare find in Yemen nowadays.  The coral has become too expensive, and is often separated from the silver jewelry piece and sold by the gram at ten to twenty dollars per gram (28 grams=1ounce).

Apart from the rarity of the antique red coral, there is a characteristic of Yemen jewelry fabrication that is now another cultural artifact: the practice of decorating silver globe beads, amulets and end pieces with granulation.  Filigree is still practiced universally.  The photo below will illustrate:

Granulation and filigree are signature characteristics of 
jewelry made in certain regions of Yemen.

Filigree shows up in the hollow spherical beads spaced between the coral in the bottom row of beads and in the cylindrical hirz or amulet hanging below the plaque that divides the strands of beads.  You can see that in the spheres and cylinder that they have been built up in pieces and then the components soldered together.  The filigree is cut by hand while the sphere is a hemisphere and the cylinder is still in sections.  The flat oval pieces hanging from the hirz may be formed from wire that is curled into a pattern.  The small spheres that hang with the oval filigree look like sleigh bells, and they are fabricated for the same reason -- to make a pleasant sound as the wearer moves.  

The granules that decorate the plaque and the pieces that separate the coral beads in the upper four rows are formed in two ways: in some pieces they are dropped onto a base of silver while molten and form into tiny globular grains, or in the second method, very small beads called shot are soldered onto the base silver shape.  The art of dropping molten silver onto a silver base to allow them to meld is not used so much any more.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Marriage Celebration in Yemen

This bride is wearing her dowery, maybe 10 kilograms of silver.

One hundred years ago in Yemen, a young girl would grow up slender with small wrists but with outsize hands, because of the hard work which is begun when very young.  So her bracelets would be made small in diameter, while her rings would be larger than expected.  

When she had reached her puberty, she would be married to a man chosen by her father.  She would have a 2-week-long celebration, one week before the ceremony, then a week of celebration following the wedding.  For the ceremony, she would be literally loaded down with silver jewelry, as you see in the vignette above.  

If the jewelry is actually all hers, it would remain with her as her own property.  But often much of the jewelry is borrowed for the sake of appearances if the bride does not have such a large amount of silver.  

We will be discussing the components of the various jewelry pieces.  Their materials, methods of fabrication and how and where they are worn all tell something about the people who make them, own them and wear them. 

Purpose and Direction of this Blog

The artwork and handicraft discussed here will be aged anywhere from ca. 50,000 B. C. to ca. 1900 A. D.   From stone hand tools such as blades, flakes and axes to delicate silver and bead jewelry of the Middle East, Central Asia and Arabia.  I will try to provide photos of pieces under discussion on any given posted message.

The photo above is of a Yemen necklace made of finely handcrafted silver, not sterling, because the standard was not established in Yemen at the time.  Instead, the Jewish silversmiths of Yemen melted the coinage of Yemen in order to make the decorative pieces.  You can see a larger more detailed photo of the item at Antique Metal and Stone Arts Group on Facebook.

The next post will begin a sketch of the history and culture behind the production of this kind of jewelry.