Amethyst with Old Coin Pendant
The necklace is composed of amethyst, silver beads from India, and an old coin centerpiece. The amethyst most likely comes from Brazil or India and was faceted in India or China. The silver beads are typiccal of Indian manufacture where the silver jewelry industry has
been vibrant for centuries due to the steady and insatiable demand by Indian women for jewelry.
The magnificent coin is a Maria-Teresa thaler from the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Thalers were the world’s first international currency, partly because of their beauty, partly because of the difficulty in counterfeiting them, and partly because Maria-Teresa was a larger-than-life symbol of fertility for Middle Eastern women – she had, after all, over a dozen children. As such, the thaler’s popularity in Muslim countries, as well as Ethiopia and Indiana, enduring long after the demise of the empire. In fact, the coin is dated 1780, but it was actually minted probably in the late 1800s/early 1900s as the dies were never destroyed after the date of the empress’s death ((1780). In fact, the enormous profit the empire reaped from the thaler trade meant that more of these coins were minted after Maria-Teresa’s passing than during her long reign.
This coin made its way through trade to Oman, where traditional Omani jewelers added the “barrel” on top to allow it to be strung in a large multi-component necklace for a village or nomadic woman from the Nizwa area. She would have purchased the necklace new as her personal property, but with money from her husband. In the event of separation from her spouse, she would be allowed to take her necklace and all other jewelry with her back to her parent’s home. Upon her death, the necklace would have passed to her daughters. And so on..until we fast forward to our current times. Sadly, gold is now al the rage in Oman and traditional silver as jewelry is worn by only a few rural women. In fact, the main jewelry trade spots in Oman are heavily frequented by Indians and their agents who buy the old silver as scrap metal to make new light-weight jewelry for tourists.
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Hence, the importance of the coin as ethnographic evidence of an endangered "silver culture" – that narrow but highly important slice of traditional Omani life that revolved around silvery jewelry design, manufacture, and adornment. As such the piece is not evidence of a living art, but rather a relic of a robust material culture that is being (has been?) consumed by a mania for modern prestige-laden gold. Much of the information regarding this material culture is anecdotal or deductive and there are no absolutes – except that this material culture is rapidly disappearing and, by all estimates including my own, will no longer exist in another 10-15 years.
Tunisia has a long tradition of silver jewelry craftsmanship and use. Like people in most Muslim countries, Tunisians, particularly women, valued silver jewelry as a store of wealth and a prize possession for personal adornment. Indeed, the latter aspect of traditional Tunisian silverwork is particularly striking as rich traditions from many different cultures, including Tunisian, North African, and Roman, combined to result in a wide diversity of design throughout the many distinct regions of this relatively small country.
The necklace shown in the photo combines Tunisian square silver beads with large graduated Pakistani onyx rondelles. The Tunisian beads are new, but they encapsulate an unbroken tradition of Tunisian silverwork from before the arrival of Roman settlers to modern times. Each side of the bead is embellished with Tunisian motifs to create a surprisingly heavy bead, which is a showpiece either when used as a single centerpiece or, as in this necklace, in tandem with many other square beads.
As in many countries with rich histories of silver, silver in Tunisia has given way in popularity to the allure of gold. As a result, many women in villages and towns have sold their old silver adornments for gold jewelry. The old silver had either been melted into ingots for use in new designs, or the old silver has found its way to the local bazaars, where visitors may acquire it to this day. However, the supply of traditional silver work is not increasing in Tunisia and the number of silversmiths practicing traditional styles can only steadily decrease.
Given this situation, the necklace displayed stands as testimonial to the fine craftsmanship of the Tunisian silversmith and the rich – but disappearing -- silver heritage of Tunisia.
Necklace from Russia, India, Egypt and the Austria-Hungarian Empire
This necklace is composed of amber from Russia, silver beads from India and Egypt, and an old coin from the Austria-Hungarian Empire. The Russian amber is a translucent brown with interesting inclusions that sparkle in the sunlight. The smaller ornate silver beads are typical of Indian manufacture where the silver jewelry industry has been vibrant for centuries due to the steady and insatiable demand by Indian women for jewelry. The large round silver beds are designed and manufactured in Cairo, Egypt for use by Egyptian women (as well as anyone else who would like to purchase them) in traditional-style necklaces.
The center coin is an Austrian-Hungarian piece dated 1900. On one side is the profile of the reigning emperor Franz-Joseph and on the reverse is the double-headed eagle, the eternal symbol of an empire that, even at the time of the coin's manufacture, was veering toward irreversible implosion. During the 1920s, this coin originally formed the centerpiece of a village women's necklace from environs of the town of Lvov. Lvov was a thriving agricultural and commercial town during the days of the empire, but is now simply a quiet historical population center located in the Ukraine. This woman had eight other silver coins on her necklace, all of them from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. With her passing, her relatives in Lvov inherited the necklace and sold it to Russian coin dealers from Moscow during the chaotic period immediately following the break-up of the soviet Union. By this time, the necklace was in very poor condition due to the deterioration of the stringing material and glass beads that were used to complement the coins. So, eventually, the individual coins were offered to buyers in Moscow during the late 1990s.
Hand of Fatima
This necklace has its origins in the Arab
world. The two countries represented in
it are Syria and Egypt with all their
wonderful history and, of course, teeming
bazaars that still today function much as
they did several hundred years ago.
The large silver filigree beads are from
the medieval trading town of Aleppo,
Syria. Deep in the heart of the old
covered bazaar in the city center are
several silver bead sellers who sit in
shops not much larger than a telephone
booth. The shops feature small drawers
filled with silver beads of Syrian
manufacture in all sizes and styles. The
vendors will readily admit to the buyer that
the beads are not sterling, but they are at
least 60% silver. Syrian wholesalers purchase
them to include in prayer bead strings,
traditionally-styled necklaces, and,
interestingly enough, key chains.
The lovely turquoise and blue glass beads
originate from a family-run business located
just on the outskirts of the wonderful old city
bazaar of Damascus, Syria. The family makes
glass beads for lamps, curtains, silverware,
and a wide variety of other household items.
When the artist asked to purchase a goodly
amount of just the beads, the family responded
with warm Syrian hospitality – the beads were
a gift, as many of them as the artist could carry
away in a backpack.
The center piece is the ever-popular Hand of
Fatima named to commemorate Mohammed’s
daughter Fatima Zahra. Throughout the Middle
East, this image, whether in wood, clay, silver,
gold, or any other material, is recognized as a
form of protection against the evil eye. The evil
eye -- a centuries-old belief spanning many
different cultures – is a look of envy from an
acquaintance, friend, neighbor, relative, or
even a complete stranger that is believed to
generate bad luck for the person to whom it is
directed. The hand depicted is crafted from
sterling silver and is an open right hand. The artist
purchased it ten years ago in the middle of the
Khan el Khalili bazaar in Cairo in a little unmarked
shop. This shop was located up a creaky set of old
stairs that opened up into a room completely
packed with Egyptian silver sold only by weight
to wholesalers – and lost tourists! This shop still
exists but with the recent events in Egypt has,
along with the rest of the bazaars, suffered a severe
downturn in business.
Italian Gold Beads
This engaging piece is designed to appeal
to the individual who would like the look of
a chunky ethnic necklace but desires the
sophistication of gold.
The gold beads are of Italian manufacture.
They date from the 1940s when strands of
all-gold beads were a popular adornment
for women. The melon shape of the beads
takes us back to the Etruscan period in
Italy’s history as well as to the Roman era.
Of course, melon-shaped beads composed
of diverse materials such as clay, glass,
silver, and gold have been regularly discovered in burial sites across the ancient
world. Melon-shaped beads today are
sculpted from a variety of precious and
semi-precious stones, including emerald,
yellow topaz, lapis lazuli, and turquoise.
The large clear stone beads are newly-cut
rock crystal from Brazil. Rock crystal has
been used for millennia for beads as
components in ceremonial and decorative
necklaces in many regions. Perhaps the
most lovely examples of such old beads
are in Europe’s archeological museums,
where they are often located with the
exhibits on findings from gravesites. The
featured rock crystal beads originally
formed a long graduated strand.
The artist selected the rock crystal beads
in order to intersperse them with the Italian
gold. The result is a creative combination
of ancient style and modern aesthetics
which can be effortlessly matched with
almost any outfit in the closet.
This necklace with its large round beads and half-round crescent represents a harmonious combination of old and new styles and materials from very different worlds.
The crescent moon pendant was purchased in the city of Aleppo, Syria from a jewelry merchant in the old covered market. This market, built almost entirely of stone, has been in continual use since the medieval ages. Women all over Syria used to wear such pendants to protect themselves from harmful spirits. The "protection" was worked through the beneficial effects on the wearer generated by the writing from the Koran impressed on the pendant’s surface.
The pendant was most likely made in the 1920s or 1930s from old European or Russian coins. Hence, the silver content would be not less than 50 percent, but not more than 80 percent, depending on the coins used and the amount of alloy added by the jeweler. Generally, Maria-Theresa thalers were the coins of choice for melting to create amulets, necklaces, and other types of adornment in silver, but Syria’s extensive international trading ties would have meant that jewelers would have had ready access to coins of varying silver content from all over the world.
The pale green crystal beads are from Brazil, but were most likely dyed and faceted in the bead workshops of China. The specific color was selected by the artist to complement the calming protection offered by the crescent pendant. In older necklaces, rock crystal was a common material for beading, but it was never dyed. Nowadays, however, crystal can be dyed in a variety of colors to suit tastes and markets.
The necklace, we hope, is not the last of its kind. The ongoing violence in Syria, particularly the troubles in Aleppo, has caused many Syrian shops to close and many Syrians to flee the country. When peace returns to Syria, the artist hopes that the silver treasures of Syria’s past will be available again for use in creative endeavors, including the lovely necklace you see here.
This necklace represents a fusion of two quite different cultures. The wind-swept shores of the Baltic Sea and the sunlit lands of Tunisia are both seamlessly integrated into this delightful creation. As regular readers of this website already know, the large silver hand is the ever-popular Hand of Fatima, which is reputed to provide protection against the evil eye. The evil eye is a look of envy from a person that is believed to generate bad luck for the individual to whom it is directed. The hand in this necklace originates from a Tunisian village where a rural jeweler would have crafted it about 60 years ago. He would have been keenly aware of the finely cast and intricately engraved flower designs in the elegant hand pendants produced by city jewelers. And he would interpreted these urban designs in his own unique way to create an equally appealing but much more rugged silver hand.
This hand would either have been specifically ordered perhaps to honor a bride on her wedding day or it would simply have been made for sale to a farmer or local merchant at a regional weekly market. The hand was purchased about five years ago in the wholesale market for used silver in Kairouan, Tunisia. This population center, located in the interior of the country, is Tunisia’s most traditional city. The hand’s price was determined by weight, not by age or workmanship. It is stamped with the Tunisian hallmark for 800, which denotes silver quality of 800 parts out of a possible 1000 parts of silver. By comparison, in the United States, silver jewelry is generally marked 925 to denote sterling silver.
The large but remarkably light-weight amber beads complement the village “look” of the hand. These beads originate from the Baltic region which is home to over 80 percent of the world’s amber. They were collected as pieces of amber on the shores of the Baltic Sea where amber – from tree resin many millions of years ago -- often washes up. The pieces were then lightly polished and drilled for use in a necklace just as they would have been many years ago. In fact, amber beads have been regularly found in ancient burial sites. They also have been used abundantly in ethnic jewelry in countries as diverse as Morocco, Ukraine, and Nepal for at least the past two centuries.
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These particular beads were purchased, interestingly enough, at a gun show in the United States where a world traveler was seeking to divest herself of much of her jewelry acquired over many years from other countries. The small silver spacers and round beads that serve to set off the amber are of modern origin from India.
A true fusion creation that unites the cold Baltic Sea and warm Tunisian fields, this necklace is our modern way of honoring the wonderful history and lore of ethnic jewelry.