Tiny silver bells, shining turquoise, deep-red garnets, glimmering gold chains, iridescent pearls and jingling coins have for centuries enticed the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula and provided the foundation for their jewelry. Today, these elements, as well as their traditional designs, are still popular with Saudi Arabian women.

Ancient Arabia prospered as the crossroads of the world, both as a merchant of its own prized natural resources - primarily frankincense and myrrh - and as the buyer of goods from distant lands. The peninsula thrived in commerce and trade as the "gateway to the East." Trade with Arabia also included spices, silks, ivory and other precious wares bound for markets in Egypt and the surrounding Mediterranean lands.

With the region's prosperity came an indulgence in the precious materials of ancient jewelry. Not only the affluent merchant class that inhabited cities but also Arabian Bedouin women were major consumers of ornate jewelry.

Traditional Bedouin jewelry is an ancient art form still popular in Saudi Arabia.

In the Arabian tradition, jewelry represents more than personal decoration. For Bedouin women, their jewelry symbolizes social and economic status - when a woman marries, her dowry is partially paid in jewelry which is hers to keep or dispose of at her discretion. Due to the inherently migrant lifestyle of the Bedouin, jewelry also becomes an easily transportable form of wealth and security for its owner. Thus, a woman's jewelry symbolizes her status as a married women and later as a mother, as it is customary to gift one's wife with jewelry for the birth of each child.

Traditionally, jewelry has also been thought to have magical powers. Turquoise in particular is believed to ward off the "evil eye." At one time, popular legend had it that a turquoise stone would glow when its wearer was happy, but when the wearer was sad, the stone would become dull. Another popular myth was that the tiny tinkling bells prominent on so many pieces of Arabian jewelry would protect the wearer by frightening off malevolent spirits with their noise.

In Arabian custom, the color of certain stones is also deemed to affect their powers. Green, blue and red are regarded as possessing protective abilities. For that reason turquoise, agate, coral and colored glass are among the most popular materials used in antique jewelry.

Islamic motifs permeate jewelry design. Amulet cases containing tiny pieces of paper with verses from the Holy Qur'an to protect the wearer are common. The sign of the hand on Saudi necklaces has been a talisman for hundreds of years. The number five is the mathematical equivalent of the hand, as well as representing the five tenets of Islam. Thus, bracelets or rings may be worn in multiples of five, and the preferred number of beads on an ornament or chains hanging from a pendant would also be five.

The jingling sound of bells, such as those on silver necklaces (top), was believed to ward off evil spirits. A necklace of gold medallions (above) is set with turquoise on a string of agate and amber beads.

While jewelry has traditionally been the domain of women, Arabian men, in contrast, have tended to decorate their weapons and camels rather than themselves. Such embellishments were a visual indication of a man's wealth, power and status. In Islamic tradition, the Qur'an discourages men from adorning themselves with gold. Modern Saudi men have wedding rings made from silver in accordance with this custom.

Children have also customarily worn jewelry in Arabia. Silver bracelets or anklets, most often trimmed with tiny bells, are the most popular choice for children. The sound of the bells would protect the young wearer from evil spirits, while also providing a source of amusement for a restless child.

Arabian artisans faced no shortage of opulent material to work with. The Red Sea, which borders Saudi Arabia's western coastline, is an endless source of coral and, in fact, provided an early industry to that region. Dark pink to red, as well as white and black, coral has been used for centuries for amulets and talismans as well as decoration. On the other coast, the Arabian Gulf offered up no shortage of magnificent pearls. These iridescent treasures were most frequently set in the finest pieces of gold jewelry. Gem fields in the southwest of the peninsula also offered a bountiful supply of stones, particularly well regarded being the turquoise from Makkah.

Silver and silver alloys have traditionally been the primary medium of the Bedouin jeweler. Mines in the interior of the peninsula provided a steady supply of silver, although some was also imported. The fragile makeup of silver, which easily corrodes when exposed to air and harsh temperatures, has led to the disappearance of a large portion of antique silver jewelry. Some historians believe that when a Bedouin woman died, her marital jewelry was melted down - part of the tradition of it being her personal property - and attribute the scarcity of old silver jewelry to this custom. For these reasons, examples of Bedouin craftsmanship more than 80 years old executed in silver are rare.

Gold, on the other hand, is much more resistant to the environment. Although gold was not the most frequently used metal among the Bedouins, many more pieces of ancient jewelry made from gold have survived. Brass and copper were also common, either alone or in combination with silver. When added to silver, copper adds a lustrous sheen.

Several techniques and processes are involved in the manufacture of Arabian jewelry. The first step in fashioning metal into jewelry is called annealing. During this process, the metal is heated and gradually cooled, making it softer and more malleable for working into shapes or hammering flat into sheets.

Embossing and repoussť work are then employed to provide the decoration on the metal. During this phase, the artisan hammers out a design or domed pattern from behind a thin piece of metal, achieving a relief decoration on the front. Granulation is another technique for the application of patterns to metal. It is one of the most difficult and exacting ornamental methods. Granulation involves applying tiny metal balls in patterns to a metal surface to produce a raised, three-dimensional decorative effect. This style was prominent in ancient Greek jewelry and was perfected by the Etruscans. Filigree is another way to achieve ornamental and delicate designs by twisting and forming wire into intricate lace-like patterns that are then soldered for endurance.

Engraving and embossing, shown on the pieces above, are widely used by traditional silversmiths.

In order to join two pieces of metal into one, the technique of fusing is applied. Using intense heat and copper carbonate, the craftsman can make filigreed wire and tiny metal granules. When he is ready to assemble a whole piece of jewelry, the artisan will then solder the various pieces together.

Chain-making is another method for working silver. Bedouin chain jewelry is varied in design and ornamentation. Some chains are crude wire links, others are elaborate combinations of links, stones and often include filigree and granulation.

Traditional Bedouin jewelers did not "cut" stones the way modern jewelers do, but rather, they "shaped" them. Cabochon gemstones - polished stones with a domed appearance - are the most prevalent in Bedouin jewelry.

Arabian Bedouin jewelry is significant not only for its aesthetic qualities, but also for the historical influences it exhibits. During the course of its own evolution over many centuries, the jewelry of the Bedouin has incorporated techniques and styles of the jewelry of other long-dead civilizations. This has excited archaeologists, as these very personal objects provide a window to the past and the people who owned them. Observers have noted that similarities in the design and craftsmanship of Bedouin jewelry can be attributed to the cross-influence that migration and trade had on the region.

As the ancient trade routes expanded, many new materials began to pass through the Arabian peninsula. Traders from the Far East introduced new materials such as amber, a mineral organic compound formed from the hardened resin of pine trees. Amber is believed to have originally come to the Arabian peninsula through Afghanistan. It varies in shade from dark brown to a light golden color and is most commonly used for Bedouin beads. Another popular material is carnelian, a quartz. This reddish-brown stone is semi-transparent and most probably came from mines in the Sinai peninsula.

Caravans not only introduced new materials to the craftsmen of the Bedouin tribes, but also contributed elements of the design of other civilizations' artistry. Bedouin jewelry borrows heavily from the Phoenicians' use of colorful glass beads and gold. Early Egyptian culture used the techniques of filigree and granulation - both prevalent in Bedouin jewelry. The early Egyptians also believed in the mystical powers of certain stones and pendants.

With the advent of Islam in 622 AD, pilgrims from Africa and Asia traveled to the holy cities in Arabia and often lived out the remainder of their lives there. Ankle bracelets popular with both Bedouin women and children are thought to have originated in Africa and found their way with pilgrims who came to perform hajj and who either remained in Arabia or sold their jewelry to finance their pilgrimage.

Although gold is more popular today than silver, modern jewelry incorporates traditional motifs and influences of Bedouin designs.

Designs which have come to be known as "arabesque" are evolved from Islamic calligraphy and design. Interlaced patterns of geometric shapes, leaves, crescents, flowers and animals, along with Qur'anic calligraphy, provide many of the beautiful embellishments on both antique and modern Arabian jewelry.

This combination of historical events brought new and significant influences to the evolving art of jewelry making on the peninsula.

Today, Saudi women still receive gifts of jewelry from their husbands when they marry. While Bedouin women received rings as part of their wedding jewelry, they did not follow the tradition of a wedding band. Whereas their ancestors received copious amounts of bracelets, rings, earrings and necklaces as part of their dowry, today's Saudi woman usually receives a more modest collection, which often includes a wedding band.

While traditional designs and motifs remain popular with modern Saudi women, most prefer gold over silver and lighter-weight pieces over the large and heavy ones of their grandmothers. Hanging in the gold souqs of Saudi Arabia, many pieces of jewelry reflect the rich heritage from which they came - gold coins suspended from long filigreed chains, turquoise stones embellishing rings and necklaces, and crescents and calligraphy adorning many ornaments. The merchandise of the gold souqs is popular not only with the indigenous population. On most days, one can find foreign businessmen visiting the shops for a souvenir sure to delight his wife, daughter or mother upon his return home.

The traditional art of Bedouin silversmiths is becoming more a part of Saudi Arabia's rich past than of its present. Few souqs in the Kingdom still do a large business in the silver jewelry of an earlier generation. Perhaps the best place to find these old treasures, or new ones made in their likeness, is in the Women's Souq in Riyadh. Here, among the stalls of colorful dresses, pungent spices and cooking utensils, female shoppers can bargain over the price of earrings, bracelets, rings and other trinkets with the Bedouin women who run the jewelry stalls. Surprisingly, the antique pieces of jewelry are often less expensive than the newer copies, primarily because of the high cost of the labor which is involved in the crafting of each piece today. However, whether one is fortunate enough to own either an antique piece of Arabian jewelry or a modern one from one of the many gold shops, it is certain to be a beautifully crafted and unique example of Arabian jewelry.



Last StoryTable of ContentsNext Story