The Ethnic Use of Silver Jewellery in Yemen

The use of Jewellery has always been very extended in the Yemeni society, and it’s an interesting fact, that Jews and Muslims wore different pieces of jewellery. There was a big difference in the use of traditional jewels, from one area of the country to other areas, what was worn and when was clearly defined in each place.

The ambar beads were mostly used by Sanaani Muslim women, but in rural areas was also worn by Jewish girls.

Rural areas presented less differences than big cities like Sana’a. The city life for Jews was more interior and had less contact with the Muslim population.

Most of the jewelers were Jewish themselves and they used to work lots of hours in minimum details to generate that beauties made of fine filigree.

The fact that the costume for Jewish and for Muslim women was different, shows another reason for the different jewels worn. Muslim women used to wear headscarves, and Jewish women wore a complement called gargush, that looks like a hood. The jewellery needed by Muslim women was mostly to keep the scarves together.The Jewish jewels were pieces to add to the hood, like filigree gold, silver brooches,coins like the Maria Theresia Thaler, and several dangling beads. Some of the pendants on the gargush had the shape of daylife things like the grains of wheat or barley, used to make everyday bread. The shapes representing the fertility of the nature give a symbolic meaning to the costume and jewellery.

Other interesting aspect in the relations between Muslim and Jewish in Yemen was the fact that for some specific occasions, it was important to wear jewels made by “the other” meaning who is not us, our community or made by a foreigner. Those jewels were supposed to possess a special blessing (baraka). The dugags of spheric beads where normally used by Muslim women daily, but Jewish women used to wear them specially on the wedding day. Jewish children also use to wear spheric dugags for extra protection. The special care for women and children comes from the exposure to many pregnancies without medical care and the natural vulnerability of the children.

Jewish silversmiths used to have Muslim and Jewish customers, they also used to work for the royal Muslims, working specially with gold instead of the usual silver. These jewelers also worked doing decoration for the daggers worn by Muslims but not by the Jewish men. This decoration includes some parts of the dagger like amulets and other accessories used with the belt and the djambia

It´s an interesting point that some of the jewelers were rabbis, they used to study the sacred texts and also dedicate their life to silversmithing. What i find very interesting is that, as they were sudents of the Kabalah and the Bible, they knew the symbolic meaning if the designs, their amuletic connotations and their connection to the Kabalistic texts. The fine techniques used in the creation of Yemeni jewellery was passed generation after generation as family secrets. During the last Imam rule of Yemen, some Jewish silvermiths were called to teach their knowledge to Muslim jewelers, as most of the Jewish community was leaving the country to go to The Holy Land. Nowadays there are some newly Jewish style jewels, but the original antique ones show the finest techniques, like the Bedihi granulation and the finest examples of Bawsani filigree.

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