YEMENI (BEDOUIN) SILVER AND BEADS

The silver jewellery of Yemen is integrally tied to the massive movement of peoples in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In Yemen, over the decades and perhaps centuries leading up to that period, the Jewish citizens of that country made most of the silver jewellery. 

With the creation of the nation of Israel in 1948, almost all, if not every single one of the jewellers left Yemen and emigrated to Israel; however, they left their stamp. The silversmiths of the first half of the twentieth century in Yemen favoured the process of granulation. This requires silver of the correct temperature to be applied to a surface, resulting in tiny beads of silver rising in relief from the surface of the basic shape of the piece. 

The jewellers used a combination of simple geometric shapes (cylinders, lozenges, spheres and flat circles), in some cases formed by or connected by filigree work, and decorated with granulation on the surface. The process of granulation requires silver of the correct temperature to be applied to a surface, resulting in tiny beads of silver rising in relief from the surface of the basic shape of the piece. The more detailed pieces show these “beads” arranged as grape clusters or other fanciful designs. Amulets, bracelets and yokes (long chains of baubles to be hung at the neckline of a dress), and chokers (short necklaces worn against the throat) form their repertoire.

One other feature distinguishes the work of the Yemeni jewellers. Some of the pieces have signatures of Hebrew names written in Arabic script, showing at once the ethnicity (Jewish) and the language of the country (Yemen Arabic). These beads are referred to as Yahudi beads. The concept of signing a piece of jewellery is rare in the Middle East in the early twentieth century, yet one should always examine a piece of Yemeni jewellery of that period for a characteristic daub of silver into which has been engraved or stamped the signature of the jeweller.

Silver has seen a transition through the ages. Traditionally, nomadic Bedouins and village families were among the silversmith’s best customers. Women often acquired most of their jewellery through marriage which remained a woman’s property, even in the event of divorce, and she could sell it at will, so it was like a savings account, to be drawn on in bad times or for special purchases, and it provided her throughout her life with a measure of economic security and independence. However, as silver jewellery was passed down from mother in law to daughter in law, certain pieces were sold off by the receiver, as each woman wanted her unique new pieces. Hence the need for preservation of these pieces of history and journeys whose fate would otherwise be the melting pot!

A woman’s jewellery also told others about her status and where she came from. Many designs and motifs were common to jewellery all across the Middle East, and even beyond Central Asia, but specific elements, such as the ‘distinctive granulation and filigree of Yemeni jewellery, could tell a woman’s tribal, regional or national identity.’

A Hirz is an amulet box that Bedouins used for putting good luck charms in and were designed to keep away jinns, or evil spirits; these often included a noise-making element, such as tiny bells or seeds encapsulated in silver, the sound of which was believed to keep spirits at bay. Coloured stones incorporated in jewellery, particularly red and blue ones, were also thought to aid in repelling evil. In Yemen, Jewish silversmiths created kitabs or hijabs, hollow cylindrical forms designed to hold prayers or holy verses which were believed to have protective power. Gradually the shape itself assumed amuletic associations in today’s world.

Today, a lot of the Bedouin Yemeni jewellery ranges anywhere from over 100 years to 50 years and can be seen by the dents and nicks in pieces due to the wearing of the pieces over time. Also, old Yemeni silver develops a fine patina which is not seen in new silvers. Yemeni jewellery has many stories to tell and is a truly classic and historical addition to anyone’s collection.

 

Terminology: 

Types of silver Yemen beads:

“Yahudi”

 These are the most expensive beads, because of the time and process of intricate workmanship of filigree work done by hand by master jewellers. The stamp is distinctly Jewish in origin, with each craftsman having his distinctive mark. Some pieces are signed by the artisan.

Large “Tut” Beads

 The workmanship is done by hand, with a spiky appearance. Each silver ball is soldered and fused to resemble granules. There are also smaller versions of the beads. No two beads are alike and you can see how each bead has a unique shape. 

“Globes”

 Large round silver beads resembling globes, used in large pieces that enhance the overall piece. They are generally hollow with some bells hanging below and are not as commonly found.

“Flowers”

 Small and large silver beads are made to resemble flowers. All these are handcrafted therefore this labour of love is what is of value in today’s modern world of machinery.

 

BLACK CORAL

Coral is formed by large colonies of minute sea animals called polyps, which secrete a continuous hard skeleton of calcium carbonate. Malaysia, Japanese and Mediterranean waters supply most of the marketable coral. The rough coral used in Bedouin jewellery is most likely from the Red Sea.

Antique Black Coral dates well over 100 years and is no longer actively mined. Its’ value continues to grow due to its great beauty and increasing rarity. In ancient times it was known as “Yusr”, “Yusuri”, or “Akabar” and was believed to bring health, wisdom, and peace while at the same time absorbing negativity and balancing the body’s natural energies. The people of the time wore amulets made of Black Coral beads for happy relationships and marriages.

 Historically, Antique Black Coral was made into prayer beads. These were often hand-stamped with beautiful intricate patterns of silver which represented the artisan and perhaps the wishes of the client. The greater the skill of the artisan and more detailed the pattern, the more expensive the bead became. Some of these black coral beads are inlaid with Mother of Pearl and old Ambers which are believed to have been commissioned by wealthy Yemenis.

Antique Black coral beads are over a hundred years old and their value (Monetary and overall) has increased tenfold as no more can be harvested. As it takes fifty to seventy years to grow, coral is extremely rare and its value increases as its availability decreases.

There are a few ways to distinguish genuine Black Coral from imitations made of wood. An original Antique Black Coral bead has growth rings that can be seen at the hole of the bead, graining throughout, and feels uneven to the touch. Wooden beads do not show growth rings and graining, and they feel smooth to the touch. When looking closely at the silver patterns, an imitation will often show that the silver was either painted or drilled into the wood.

 During our designer’s visits to the area, she was thrilled to have found these uncommon and interesting beads. Connecting immediately to their beauty and history, we are honoured to use them as integral and unique additions to our jewellery designs.

 

HISTORICAL COINS 

EAST AFRICAN COINS

The East African coinage was the currency used in British controlled areas (Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), the sultanate of Zanzibar and Pemba (now part of Tanzania), Uganda and British Somaliland (now part of Somalia) from 1919 to 1969.

The East African coinage includes two denominations of 1936, which bear the style, and titles of Edward VIII. The most common East African coins are copper-based and have a hole in their centre. It is believed that the natives at the time threaded the coins to wear pendant style around their necks.

The one shilling and rarer ½ shilling coins depict a powerfully graceful lion walking across the plains against the background of Mt. Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain. It is made of silver alloyed with copper, allowing for a naturally light patina (film/coating). This is what gives these coins their wonderful depth of field.

Other coins from East Africa’s history are the German Hellers. From Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa), the “1 Heller 1908” coins are from the period between 1886 and 1918, when Germany ruled present-day Tanzania. The 1888 Anna (Rupees) represented in some of our pieces are found in Yemen and India, evidencing the trade routes within these territories.

 

ITALIAN COINS

The modern state of Italy did not develop until 1860. Though a kingdom under Victor Emanuel (Vittorio Emanvele), during the 1920s, the country was completely controlled by the Fascisti under Mussolini. After his death and the abdication of the King following Italy’s defeat in WW2, the country became a republic. The coin represented is a replica of the original.

 

BRITISH CAMPAIGN MEDALS: THE INDIAN SERVICE MEDAL 1939-1945

This medal was awarded to officers and men of the Indian forces for 3 years of non-operational service in India or elsewhere. It was frequently awarded in conjunction with the Campaign Stars and the war medal, but never with the medal for Defense. This was the last in the series of medals which covered a period of almost one hundred and fifty years, awarded in conjunction with India.

 

AUSTRIA-1 TALER 1780 TRADE COIN

An unofficial ‘trade dollar’, the final date of the famous Maria Theresia Thaler has been struck intermittently to modern times at many mints. It has been used in many areas that lacked a firm local coinage particularly in North and East Africa and the Near East.

 

HISTORICAL SILVER

Authentic historical silver stands out due to its unique design and workmanship. Dating back to the time of the Queen of Sheba, this style of silverwork endures through today. Combinations of simple shapes, intricate filigree, and granulation techniques set this type of silver and jewellery apart. Pieces such as amulet boxes, used for good luck charms, and hollow cylinders, filled with prayers and wishes, were also created using this same detailed approach. This historical silver develops a fine patina, which is very unlike the coating on other silvers and cannot be duplicated. Authentic beads of this type are becoming more rare and valuable, giving rise to imitations. A reliable test is to rub the piece with a cloth. Unlike imitations, authentic historical silver will respond by shining once more.

 

AFRICAN AMBER

Amber is a soft, gluey resin found anywhere resin producing trees occur. This mineral, organic compound is estimated to be between 60 and 70 million years old.  When fresh, this sticky substance attracted and held any plant and insect matter present. As time passed, the resin hardened into its current, beautiful form.  The older the amber, the more value it is said to have.

Natural amber occurs as irregular nodules, rods or drop like shapes in all shades from yellow to yellowish brown, black to blue, red to light golden brown, often containing inclusions which add to the unique quality of each individual piece. Some types are considered very old and are becoming difficult to find which makes them increasingly valuable and highly collectable. Old amber from Yemen is buttery yellow to red, is extremely rare and fetches high prices today.  The old dark red ambers called Bembe, are found in Nigeria.

Due to its rarity, many imitations very similar to the original were produced within Africa, which were termed “African Amber” or “Bakelite”.  Most “African Amber” is not the true European (Baltic) fossilized resin amber, but a complicated mixture of fossilized and synthetic resins.  Developed in the early 20th century, it’s been traded with many Middle Eastern, African, and Asian cultures.

Due to their cultural and historical significance, these beads are highly prized and sought after.  Much of the amber used in Bedouin Yemen jewellery likely found its way through Afghanistan.

New “African Amber” is a mixture of resin and copal and is also known as” imitation amber”. Copal is also a natural resin, but since it is still relatively young, it cannot truly be classified as amber yet.  It is a bit stickier and softer than true amber, but given enough time, it will age into its older, more valuable counterpart.  Copal is mined primarily in Zanzibar, South America, and New Zealand and has been traditionally used to create beautiful ethnographic jewelry pieces. It is often referred to as amber in the trade so it pays to know what you are buying and from whom you are purchasing.

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