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