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Volume 43, Number 5September/October 1992

In This Issue

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Berber Silver, Arab Gold

Written by Caroline Stone
Photographed by Francesco Venturi

Jewelry in Morocco, and all across North Africa, is of two kinds. There is the heavy silver characteristic of the mountain Berbers, the nomads and the country people, and there is the gold, usually more delicately worked, preferred by the Arabs of the towns. The latter is sometimes also worn by those Berbers who live in close contact with the Arabs in the cities and the plains.

The Berbers are believed to be the original inhabitants of North Africa, preceding Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans and Goths. The Arabs were the last of the great waves of invaders of the region; led by 'Uqba ibn Nafi', they crossed the whole width of the continent in 684, and reached the Atlantic. Succeeding waves followed, but as settlers rather than invaders, coming up out of Arabia with their herds and households. The Berbers converted to Islam at an early date, but they retained their language, customs and ethnic identity. Indo-Europeans, the Berbers are the only fair-skinned people native to Africa; many have red hair and light eyes. In the southern oases, they have intermarried with sub-Saharan Africans to produce the Berber-speaking Haratine.

Roughly speaking, the elegant city culture of North Africa is Arab. The Berbers are typically country people, excellent farmers and stockbreeders, and inhabit the Rif, the Atlas and the oases, as well as certain towns such as Meknes and Tangier. Arab dress is essentially cut and sewn; Berber dress, far more archaic, is draped, as in classical times, and held with brooches and a belt. All of this has influenced both Arab and Berber jewelry.

For both Arabs and Berbers, jewelry is not merely a means of decoration—it is a way of saving. Jewelry given to a woman is hers absolutely, and it is normal for her to sell an ornament or two to buy something else or to tide her family over a lean period; she may even sacrifice a number of pieces in order to acquire animals or land. In this way, the women often act as the families' bankers and their jewelry thus has a different significance than in the West.

Women begin to build up their collection of jewelry as children, and it is greatly increased about the time of their marriage. After that, they will add to it at every possible occasion, whenever the men of the family have some spare money. Old pieces are not prized, except by the most sophisticated, and Berber women in particular like to wear jewelry made for them personally. This means that, in each generation, jewelry fends to go back to the smith to be melted down and reworked, and so very old pieces are very rare. Fashions change, however, and it is possible to class a piece roughly as "antique" or "modern," meaning that it is made either before or after the period 1900 to 1920.

The Berber and the Berber-speaking Tuareg prefer silver jewelry to gold, but the reason has nothing to do with poverty. The Prophet Muhammad disapproved of gold jewelry for men, but—by his example and by instruction—allowed them to wear silver. Gold was allowed as an adornment for women.

Berber jewelry is nonetheless almost entirely silver, enriched with niello-work, enamel, engraving, repousse and semi-precious stones, the colors of which have a symbolic meaning. Necklaces of huge amber beads, held to have protective properties, were in the past traded all the way from the Baltic. Now, they are often made of plastic or copal resin from Mauritania.

The main pieces of Berber jewelry—best seen at weddings and during the harvest, when it is traditionally displayed—include head ornaments, which may be like the urban taj (15), or made of silver coins, old and new; earrings, usually so large that they have to be supported on a chain that runs across the head or that is hooked into the hair, and similarly, pendants which hang over the temples (14); necklaces of various kinds (13); rings; pairs of great silver brooches (6), essential for holding the draped robes in place; pairs of bracelets (11) of different types, including the star-shaped, heavy ones of the Aït Atta, whose points can be used for self-defence; and pairs of anklets , usually of the horseshoe shape also worn by townswomen.

Throughout North Africa, as in many countries, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, smiths hold a peculiar position on the fringes of society, needed and respected for their skills, but at the same time socially distrusted and feared. The Tuareg say of it metalworkers that they are "older than memory, proud as the crow, and mischievous in mind." Some of the techniques still in use are ancient, probably going back to the Carthaginians, who reached the Maghrib some 500 years BC. They include cloisonne enamel and niello work (6, 11, 13), which often give Berber jewelry a look reminiscent of medieval Europe, and filigree, some of the designs for which were brought by the Muslim refugees from Granada in the 16th century (See Aramco World, July-August 1991), and are still called rarnati —"of Granada." (7)

While Berber women, especially the Haratine, are often loaded with remarkable amounts of jewelry, men wear little, apart from rings—and in modern times, watches—in accordance with the example of the Prophet; the same is, by and large, true of townsmen. Traditionally, however, all of a man's personal possessions are beautifully made and decorated, in particular his dagger (3) and chain, which until recently was a standard part of the male wardrobe; his gun, often magnificently inlaid; his powder horn (4) or powder flask (9); and in some cases, his Qur'an case (17)—worn by the Tuareg, for example, bound to their turbans. Unlike the custom in many other parts of the world, both men's and women's belts—an essential element where clothing is draped—are almost invariably made of cloth rather than metal.

There is a difference between town and country jewelry. Arab women have a strong preference for gold, and so the pieces are apt to be smaller and more delicate. Filigree or incised gold, enameled or set with precious or semi-precious stones, is very popular and pearls are greatly sought after (12), as are emeralds. One of the most distinctive pieces is the taj, or diadem, (15) worn for marriages and for certain other formal occasions. A central forehead ornament is also worn, confusingly called taba a (plural: touaba), like the brooches (7) and hanging decorations (fnarat, singular fnar ) that frame the face. Normal wear includes earrings (2), often so heavy that, like their Berber counterparts, they need to be supported; rings; bracelets, (5) which are always worn in pairs; and, now mostly on special occasions, anklets. Pairs of brooches (7, 8) were worn with elements of traditional dress which involve draping, while single brooches are a recent Western introduction.

It is very difficult to date jewelry from Morocco. Traditional patterns tended to be copied over and over again. Western motifs do not always indicate modernity, because of the very old link with Spain, but pieces such as the diadem on page 21 (15) are obviously completely European. Generally, the older pieces of both Arab and Berber jewelry tend to be larger and heavier, often with more delicate detail; newer pieces are apt to be less bold in design but flashier in their execution. There are several reasons for this: the rise in the price of precious metals, with a corresponding tendency to compensate by using large, bright, but not very valuable stones; the emigration of a very large number of the jewelers during the 1950's and 1960"s, which caused a break in the tradition—a tradition only just now reviving, for example in the Algerian Kabyle; and perhaps most importantly, the fact that jewelry throughout North Africa is bought by weight, with the workmanship counting for very little. As a result, in the modern world, the craftsman often cannot afford to put a lot of time into delicate and painstaking effects (6), unless he is specially commissioned, but tends instead to go for the bolder, cruder—and thus quicker—forms of decoration.

The traditional techniques, however, are still available in the hands and heads of at least the older craftsmen, and it is to be hoped that an increased appreciation of Moroccan jewelry will lead not only to antiques being sought after by collectors, but to new pieces being commissioned.

Caroline Stone, a specialist in the textiles and jewelry of North Africa, divides her time between London, Rome and Seville.

This article appeared on pages 14-21 of the September/October 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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