– by Sigrid van Roode –
The young man looked at me hesitantly. “Well, I don’t know….” he said. “I’ll have to ask my grandfather, but he’s praying right now. Would you like some more tea?” Three glasses of hot sweet tea later, his grandfather entered the tiny shop in Cairo, Egypt’s Khan el-Khalili market where I sat, surrounded by old and vintage silver jewellery. We exchanged greetings and pleasantries, shared some more tea, and eventually settled on a price for the bracelet I wanted to buy. “Do you know what this is?,” the grandfather asked. I replied it was a bracelet made in Cairo, but worn by the Bedouin of Sinai and southern Palestine. He nodded, looked at it a last time, handed it to me and said “You look after it. It’s very old.” I promised I would. That was over 25 years ago, and it’s a memory that has stuck with me. But what was its story?
In the present day, bracelets like these are on display, along with other pieces of traditional jewellery and dress, in the new Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo. That is not just the case in Egypt: traditional jewellery is increasingly valued as heritage but throughout North Africa and Southwest Asia. Yet large numbers of it are no longer with their communities of origin, but abroad, in the homes of private collectors, and often in shoeboxes. And it is precisely these collected pieces that are at risk of disappearing– and with it, a significant historic source of stories. They are not recognized as heritage, and in the process become nameless, orphaned jewellery.
Let’s start with how they ended up with private collectors. Traditional jewellery was traditionally sold off by its original owners, and much of it was originally intended for the melting pot. Such has been the way of jewellery for thousands of years: jewellery as portable asset was almost as a rule melted down at some point, often during the life of its owner. That is because jewellery was a commodity and a financial asset. But its elemental value was in its content of precious metal, a quality of jewellery that tends to be forgotten. It is reflected in the Arab saying “Bracelets are for the difficult times”– women invested in bracelets as a savings’ account, to be used when times got rough.
From the 1960s onwards, these vintage pieces started to be picked up by cultural outsiders, perhaps first following the hippie trail, or later among the increased influx of tourists and migrant workers. They found jewellery with silversmiths who were using it as ‘raw’ material to melt down and create new pieces from, and brought their finds home with them. That is not a development specific to North Africa and Southwest Asia– by the way: during this same timeframe, traditional jewellery in Europe and and other parts of Asia was also melted down or sold off massively to cultural outsiders.
Fast forward to the present day again, where the pieces that were sold off as commodity are now increasingly also valued as heritage. Increasingly, but not exclusively, you will find vintage jewellery for sale in bustling souq markets from Marrakech, Morocco to Cairo, Egypt– and also online. The question I get asked a lot is “How is this heritage, if it is so widely for sale?”
I believe the answer is straightforward: jewellery, at this point in its life, is both commodity and heritage. It is literally transitioning, during our lifetime, from a staple commodity that can be sold when needed, to becoming a powerful carrier of identity for the communities that produced it. That transition is very visible: in every country, you will find simultaneously people that sell traditional jewellery to cultural outsiders, as well as initiatives seeking to safeguard jewellery as heritage. In some cases, a jewellery shop and a jewellery museum with similar pieces are even literally next door to each other.
So where does that leave me and my bracelet, and indeed the millions of bracelets, anklets, necklaces and rings that have found their way to collectors abroad?
The way I see it, the large number of jewellery pieces in the homes of private collectors is at risk of becoming a forgotten category of heritage and their stories lost. The collectors that picked up jewellery in the 60s and 70s are now reaching old age, and are increasingly looking for a destination for what might even be a life passion: their collection of traditional jewellery. But that is not as simple as donating a collection to an ethnographic museum. These collections have never been inventoried, described, or photographed. And the amount of work that comes with cataloguing shoeboxes of jewellery can be too much for most museums to handle. Another factor is that ethnographic museums currently find themselves in the ongoing, and much needed, debate about provenance. The jewellery’s origin gets tangled up in issues such as looted heritage and restitution demands, even though it has been legally acquired and much of it after 1970, the year the UNESCO convention to prevent illicit trade in cultural property was signed.
And finally, a lack of interest in traditional jewellery plays a role as well– because how is this heritage when it can still be bought and sold? These collected pieces then often find their way to the market again, but with little or no (or just plain wrong) information about its cultural background, function, or even country, attached.
But there is more that disappears. The many stories that collectors have to share, are rarely written down either. The most heart-breaking conversations I have are with next of kin who inherit a collection, and only then realize their grandmother brought these from trips they barely know anything about– the kind of realization that makes you wish you had asked, listened and recorded more. And there is still more, because theirs are not the only histories that are lost.
The generation of original wearers from the communities of origin is also reaching old age. With them, an emic world of knowledge and meaning is disappearing.
The generation of original wearers from the communities of origin is also reaching old age. With them, an emic world of knowledge and meaning is disappearing. What is lost includes vernacular names for things, personal memories, and very particular roles of jewellery within a community. Take the pendants on a necklace from Siwa oasis in Egypt, for example. They are called hilal ‘crescent’ or hawafir ‘horsehoe’, after their shape, and you will find many of these pendants with one of their extremities broken off (above). With jewellery being a financial asset and traditional savings’ account, that is to be expected: when the wearer needed cash, she broke off a bit, and traded her silver. A recent false story that has taken hold however, is that the tip would be broken off when the wearer had given birth to a son. It’s a newly invented story, but a persistent one nonetheless. When I explained this phenomenon on my Facebook page, a visitor left a comment that this was done to “ward off the evil eye,” after which another visitor responded how that made “total sense” to her. As you can see, the actual knowledge about the many uses of jewellery is already starting to fade and new ‘factoids’ are being made up as I watch.
Is jewellery that is still available for sale, heritage? Maybe it isn’t, or not yet, anyway. But a fact, if it is no longer made, worn, and used as it had been for decades. Traditional jewellery, defined as such by UNESCO Heritage Convention or not, is becoming increasingly rare, and while museums and cultural institutions in the communities of origin are looking to present it as part of the long and colourful history of the people that created it, they may not find any more.
So at the end of the day, both the jewellery itself and the ethnographic information about its wearers, both old and new, and their worlds it represents are at risk of slipping away unseen– unless we start looking after them properly now. The young man in that tiny market shop in Cairo may have taken over the business by now, and I wonder if he still has old jewellery to sell or made the switch to newly produced souvenirs. I am still looking for a way to pass that promise I made to his grandfather along to a new generation: the story of the bracelet cannot end with me.
Hoodfar, H. 1999. Between Marriage and the Market: intimate politics and survival in Cairo. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo
Ter Keurs, P. 2021. Collecting: A multi-layered phenomenon, in: O’Farrell, H. & P. ter Keurs (eds). Museums, Collections and Society. Yearbook 2020. Leiden University, Leiden, pp. 113-130
Vale, M.M., 2011. Sand and Silver. Jewellery, Costume and Life in Siwa Oasis. York Publishing Services, York
Weissenberger, M., 1998. Les bijoux des oasis égyptiennes, in: Bliss, F. 1998. Artisanat et artisanat d’art dans les oasis du desert occidental egyptien, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Köln
Sigrid van Roode is an archaeologist, ethnographer, and jewellery historian. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid curates exhibitions, presents talks and workshops, and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia. She runs www.bedouinsilver.com and is the founder and director of the Qilada Foundation, her non-profit initiative to reunite jewellery with its communities of origin.
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