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Volume 30, Number 2March/April 1979

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The Beauty of Bedouin Jewelry

"Why does the turquoise and silver jewelry of certain American Indians and Mexicans resemble so closely that of the bedouins of Saudi Arabia?"

Written by Heather Colyer Ross
Photographed by Ian Yeomans
Additional photographs by Heather Colyer Ross

In pursuit of Bedouin jewelry - and its history -  I kept discovering, or stumbling on, new facts. Even now, when documentation of Arabia's traditional jewelry seems as complete as possible, I am uneasily aware that the story must be cautiously told with a large "perhaps." Still, accumulating the pieces in my collection, and attempting to trace their history, has led me through some surprising gateways.

During a trip last summer, for example, I found a possible answer to a question I had asked many times: Why does the turquoise and silver jewelry of certain American Indians and Mexicans resemble so closely that of the Bedouins of Saudi Arabia? My conclusion is that Islam introduced the beauty of Bedouin jewelry to Spain sometime during the 800 years of Islamic rule there (See Aramco World, September- October 1976), and that the Spanish conquistadors then carried the artistic themes - and materials - to Mexico, Central America and the southwestern regions of the United States.

I based this conclusion on several observations: that some Mexican and Indian jewelry is identical to Bedouin jewelry, that the Indians never mined silver and that there was no native turquoise and silver jewelry until after the Spanish came.

My earlier research into the history of Bedouin jewelry had also turned up some surprising links in the complicated interchange of culture. In Saudi Arabia, for example, I examined the jewelry found by F.S. Vidal, an Aramco archeologist, in a tomb at Jawan in the Eastern Province. It was dated about A.D. 100 and, on close inspection, it was apparent that the mace-shaped bead in the necklace was identical to a bead used by the Greeks in the fourth century B.C. in the "terminal" or end position. Such a bead, faithfully reproduced, also appears in the silver Bedouin jewelry worn in Arabia, and in the terminal position - suggesting perhaps that the pattern was somehow transmitted to the Arabian Gulf.

The evidence for this is persuasive. Approximately 2,000 years ago when Southern Arabia was known as Arabia Felix, "Happy" or "Fortunate" Arabia, the great wealth which passed along the trade route undoubtedly included foreign jewelry, incorporating, probably, the mace-shaped bead. This bead had been designed to be placed at either end of a necklace to hold the coupling clasp - exactly as it appears in Bedouin jewelry. Traditional Arabian Bedouin necklaces, moreover, feature multi-colored and silver beads strung in irregular sizes - another echo of ancient jewelry characteristics. What supports this theory, of course, is the fact that the Arabian Peninsula, at various points in history, was relatively isolated. As a result, ancient patterns in such crafts as jewelry have been repeated - and faithfully preserved - for centuries. In a sense, therefore, Bedouin jewelry provides a fascinating window on the past.

Another astonishing aspect of the foregoing is that Bedouin jewelry is rarely old. Unlike Western jewelry, often handed down as a treasured bequest, a Bedouin woman's jewelry is generally melted down upon her death. Having been given by her family as her dowry, it would be unacceptable to a new bride and is, almost invariably, worn and damaged. As jewelry often represents a Bedouin woman's personal wealth, it is often sold, too, in times of need and then melted down by a silversmith. But since the silversmith then remakes the silver into new pieces, and since the new pieces are in the same traditional style - albeit his own interpretation - the patterns continue to reappear; in some cases they span 6,000 years.

While doing research on the source of the silver used for jewelry, I also discovered that some Bedouin jewelry may - it is by no means certain - contain silver and other metals from one of the fabled King Solomon's mines.

I had begun my research in Riyadh and eventually was referred to Jiddah, where Ralph J. Roberts of the U.S. Geological Survey office supplied masses of interesting and useful papers. Among them were reports on the geology and ore deposits of a district called the Mahd al-Dhahab in northwestern Saudi Arabia, which the office had prepared for the Director General of Mineral Resources at the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources.

This report strongly suggested that the district was the site of King Solomon's legendary mines - partly because the name Mahd al-Dhahab means "Cradle of Gold" or Mother Lode, and partly because carbon dating of the tailings, the refuse from ore processing, confirm the era. As most of the metal used in jewelry prior to the 18th century came from local mining - and as the same metal is used over and over again in Bedouin jewelry - it is possible that todays ornaments contain at least a proportion of the silver and base metals which were also found in those ancient and fabled mines.

Other odd facts have surfaced during my research. Until the time of Britain's Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, men rather than women wore most of the jewels in the family. Elizabeth, however, inherited from her father, Henry the Eighth, his love of lavish body ornamentation as well as his throne and began to adorn herself with fabulous pieces of jewelry. Later she had elaborate gowns encrusted with priceless gems and the men at her court, taking the hint, began to give jewelry to their women, rather than wear it themselves.

For my book on Bedouin jewelry I also explored the rationale for wearing jewelry, and found that the answer is complex - and ancient. Since the earliest times, people have adorned their bodies in various ways: by tattooing, painting and, in some parts of the world, scarring. Body ornaments for prehistoric man also included jewelry fashioned from dead beetles, eggshells, seeds, bone, teeth, claws, tusk, wood, gem material and, later, faience and glass. Today, celebrated jewelers of the world use plastics as well as precious materials and there is a swing to primitive-looking pieces featuring shells, seeds, nuts, wood, teeth, claws and - a favorite through the ages - ivory.

One reason for body adornment in ancient times was superstition; ancient man tattooed or painted himself as a protection against misfortune and the displeasure of his gods. Later, he wore jewelry to manifest religious beliefs. And today women, primarily, wear jewelry to enhance their appearance, especially in circles where fashion, taste and beauty are important.

Even today, however, jewels have a fascination that goes beyond fashion. In the West, for example, there has been a revival of the medieval belief in the healing powers of precious metals and gems; and collectors, obviously, are fascinated in still another way.

In my case, collecting Bedouin jewelry - and researching its history - was the end result of a lifetime's appreciation of ornaments and objets d'art, the habit of collecting pretty glass, pottery and other appealing bits, preferably hand-made, and the desire for travel which led my husband and me to Saudi Arabia in 1969. Shortly after arriving in Riyadh, I began to visit the suqs and eventually discovered the "women's suq" where the traders are all women. Because of the tradition of disposing of a woman's jewelry upon her death, or selling it in times of need, much of the merchandise in the women's suq is jewelry and the traders' trays are usually brimming with second-hand ornaments, many richly embellished with turquoise and red stones. In addition there are closed showcases displaying some few old-gold ornaments which generally incorporate pearls from the Arabian Gulf.

From there I branched out into the women's suqs in the Dirah suq complex and the suq complex in Riyadh, gradually learning the customs, gradually building the relaxed rapport which is conducive to a happy transaction.

In jewelry suqs, of course, bargaining is important. Although this is a cliche by now (see Aramco World, September-October 1978), it is also a fact, and an important part of the ritual is a feigned indifference. This is very difficult when you see an unusual ornament or a specimen of jewelry you have been seeking for some time. But it is important; haste, it is often said in the Arab world, comes from the devil. Any obvious display of impatience, therefore, will be noted - at least as bad manners - and will almost certainly raise the price. In time, we also found the silversmiths who work in a remote part of the Batha suq in Riyadh and much later saw some at work in the Tayif suq. The new jewelry is often of far lower silver content than the older pieces - it is made from an alloy containing large amounts of base metal - yet is more expensive than the fine old pieces sold by the Bedouin women traders. This is obviously because of the rising cost of labor and silver and the desire for new pieces. At the silversmiths, however, as at the women's suq, we often met true Bedouins - actual desert dwellers - who had come for miles to purchase, or sell, silver jewelry. As it would be cheaper to buy direct from these Bedouins, I tried often to do so. But although they were always courteous and sometimes friendly, they would not engage in a transaction - apparently because they have, and honor, an agreement to deal with the merchants.

As with the collection of antiques - unless one is a trained expert - good purchases for my Bedouin jewelry collection usually occurred only after I became more familiar with the pieces. None of the ornaments, to be sure, is hallmarked, although some occasionally exhibit the mark of the maker, so the process of acquiring fine examples of traditional pieces demands both patience and luck. Repeated visits to the suqs at one time might yield nothing, or very little, while two rare items - such as ajnad or lazm -might suddenly appear on the same day and be sold just as suddenly. In recent years, the new Western interest in hand-made ethnic items has added to the rising prices. Even worse, for collectors, the new affluence of Saudi Arabia has brought with it light-weight, machine-made gold jewelry that is quickly replacing the traditional, cumbersome silver ornaments. The modernization of Saudi Arabia, furthermore, is swiftly eradicating regional differences and styles, and frustrating efforts to document knowledge of the history of jewelry on the Peninsula.

That history is very old. Ancient pictographs on rock faces depict human figures wearing jewelry and it is recorded that the men of Arabia, until quite recently, wore bold silver jewelry. But much is still in the "perhaps" stage and will remain so until the kingdom's relatively new Department of Antiquities and Museums can focus on the details of the Peninsula's past. In the meantime, collections such as mine help to preserve actual specimens and their revealing histories.

This article appeared on pages 4-9 of the March/April 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1979 images.