Thursday, March 22, 2012

Choosing Antique Ethnic Jewelry

First of all, when collecting antique ethnic jewelry, it matters whether you are a collector of old tribal or ethnic jewelry or simply a wearer.  If you are simply a wearer, it may mean that you have inherited old jewelry from an immigrant ancestor into the culture that you now inhabit.  Or you may choose to purchase such pieces from a tradition to which no ancestor of yours ever belonged.  By these statements you see that I am using the word ethnic jewelry to mean adornment from a culture distant from its present location in time or space or both.

If you live on a ranch in California and you see a piece such as this, you would recognize that it was probably not designed or put together by the local jeweler in the mall.

This particular piece was assembled in the early 1900s by a silversmith probably with a shop in the neighborhood named Beit Baws near Sana'a, the capital of Yemen.

If you decide to buy a piece of antique jewelry as a collector, you probably already know how to build your collection and what to look for in order to authenticate a claim of provenance.  But if you are beginning to collect ethnic jewelry as an admirer of traditional ethnic styles and you wish to wear it, there are some things to consider in making the purchase.  

First, will you be a generalist or a specialist?  For example, my own collection specializes in Middle Eastern and South Asian jewelry and ancient artifacts.  Most of the things you will see at my studio are from the region of the planet that lies between Turkey and India, from Turkmenistan to Yemen.  

Secondly, I would advise against purchasing ethnic silver or gold jewelry for its intrinsic value, for example for the purity of the metal or the value of the gemstones.  Most ethnic jewelry holds its value in the workmanship, the tribal national expression of what they considered important and beautiful.  
Thirdly, there will most often not be a designer's name attached to the piece.  However, in the case of the Yemen silver, you will find that a great number of the pieces are signed by the maker.  They are very popular collectibles.  To illustrate, see these signed earrings: 

Slightly below center on each earring, you see a cartouche containing the Yemen Jewish silversmith's signature stamped into the molten silver.  

The photo below shows how they appear on the face; the above photo is of the signed back.  

A final consideration -- at least for today's blog -- is the distinct character of the jewelry.  Some people express their appreciation of beauty in bold colors and large expanses of gold or silver.  Others will use intricate wire filigree and subtle colors.  I would say that the pieces posted on this page so far are typical Yemeni pieces and fit into the latter type: intricate and subtle.  

Before we end the discussion for today, we can learn of a contrasting ethnic character in the Turkoman jewelry.    Shall we have a look at this bold statement of the tribe's wealth and the woman wearer's status?  

This antique Turkoman gilded silver headband or sinsile was made by a Teke tribal silversmith in the Oasis of Merv in about 1900 or before. This particular design is in its own traditional sub-category of sinsile called manlajlyk. In certain regions, it is the style worn by married women, the Teke in the Merv Oasis being one of the regions. 

Each of the seven linked plaques is decorated with repetitions of the ram's horn, the primal ancestor symbol among all Turkoman tribes. Along the top edge of each plaque are ten more ancestor symbols, including the ancient dogdan tree symbol. Those are the five intersected triangles between the row of stylized ram's horns at the very top and the beaded wire border around the edge of the plaque. They resemble abstractions of trees, which is what they are. The dogdan was the original talisman worn by the Turkoman. It was made from the wood of the honored tree that grew in the mountains from which the people originated. It is a mythic symbol for the people who came out of the Altaic mountains in ancient times. Once the people began making silver jewelry, the incorporated the ancient talismanic symbols as protection for the wearer, just as the old wood ones had been. 

In the center of each plaque the silversmith set a table cut carnelian in the classic transparent ruddy hue. 

Five pendants are attached to each of the plaques. These are traditional embossed pendants with a backing delicately soldered to the embossed face. An extra pendant hangs from the ring hinge between each plaque. Each third pendant is decorated with an oval carnelian cabochon, the Turkoman's choice of gemstone. This piece glows with the classic carnelian's translucence. 

For the dating and symbol interpretation, I relied on Schlechter, Old Silver Jewellery of the Turkoman. 

Length: 49.5 cm (19.3 inches) x 12 cm (4.7 inches) high including pendants. 

The belief system of the Turkoman people is set forth in this piece.  It proclaims to those who see the owner wearing this head dressing that she is part of the long tradition behind the Turkoman people, no matter how recently they had come from the Altai mountains onto the Kara Kum Desert or the Valleys of the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.

Another substantial piece of Turkoman jewelry that makes a statement that the man wearing this ring has status in his community and is also tied to his ethnic tradition is this signet (signature seal) ring.  

 We know his name was Abdu Allam, written in beautiful Persian style in Arabic letters, decorated with floral designs.  The calligraphy and floral designs are on every part of the ring except the band itself.  It is a very heavy good quality silver piece.  It is constructed in layers with the tablet with the signature on it standing over 1 centimeter above the basis of the ring face.  A man wearing such a ring would definitely be noticed.  

There are other matters to consider when collecting jewelry that makes important cultural statements.  There is the consideration of the authenticity and the present condition of the old piece of jewelry.  For today's blog, we will only discuss the question of specializing in making your collection.  In future blogs, we will point out how to decide such things a provenance, authenticity and integrity of the piece.  This is to say, is the piece true to the ethnic tradition, was it made by the people who produce and wear that type of jewelry, and finally, has it been repaired, restored or reclaimed.  
We will continue the discussion in future blogs.