Bedouin Jewellery in Saudi Arabia

Bedouin Jewellery in Saudi Arabia Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010

Petrological discoveries in Saudi Arabia have revealed rock face carvings that show human forms, lavishly adorned with bracelets, anklets, earrings, pendants and head ornaments. Although these rock sketches are more than seven thousand years old, they portray styles bearing a strong resemblance to the bold, distinctive designs of today's Bedouin jewellery. Admittedly, few of the pieces currently around are more than 50 years old, but the origin of the patterns and shapes is deeplyrooted in ancient times. Longdead civilisations such as the Roman and Byzantine empires, Egyptian pharaohs, ancient Persians, Phoenicians, Turkish sultans all have been sources of inspiration for the exotic and ornate pieces of jewellery in the Bedouin range.

Traditionally, Bedouin jewellery (pictured) is made of silver, usually studded with amber, coral, agate, cornelian, pearls or turquoise. Most pieces are large and dramatic. Necklaces and pendants characteristically feature silver bells, balls, coloured beads, coins and links of intricate chainmail mesh. Bracelets and anklets are chunky and heavy, some weighing as much as 200 grams. Their surface is usually embossed with calligraphy and can be left unadorned or set with semiprecious stones. Finger, ear, nose and head ornaments are varied in their style, but most have their surfaces decorated with either abstract motifs or flowing curvilinears inspired by the teachings of the Qur'an.

Bedouin women receive their jewellery as a wedding present. Customarily, a prospective bridegroom pays the bride's father a dowry, part of which he uses to buy jewellery for his daughter. Under Muslim law, any jewellery bestowed on the bride in this nuptial settlement becomes her own property and insurance in times of need.

Bedouin women are rarely seen without their bracelets, but some of the necklets and headornaments are so cumbersome that they are worn only on special occasions. At such times it is traditional for a woman to wear every fingerring she owns a good assurance against her day being ruined by too much cooking or cleaning!

When a Bedouin woman dies, all her jewellery is either sold or melted down. It is deemed unsuitable for a new bride to possess pieces of jewellery that have belonged to someone else.

Although Bedouin jewellery is still being made, the old craftsmen are retiring and the younger generation turning to more lucrative occupations. This, coupled with the Bedouin's easy access to more fashionable gold jewellery, is the reason for the disappearance of the traditional silver accessories. It is Westerners living in Saudi Arabia and their penchant for handcrafted items who are largely responsible for keeping the craft alive.

Unfortunately, the quality of workmanship diminishes each year. Not only is the silver content increasingly adulterated with base metals of copper, tin and zinc, but fake gems are often substituted for real ones. However, the ancient designs and techniques used for making the jewellery remain unchanged. Modern manufacturing methods cannot successfully duplicate the intricate filigree and fine detailing of the ornaments, so no matter what the metal content or how worthless the stones, the pieces must still be fashioned by the skilled hands of a professional.

The nomadic tribes rarely include a silversmith. Most skilled jewellers were settled folk living near oases. Although they often aligned themselves with a specific Bedouin group, and catered exclusively to the group's needs, they were not considered part of the tribal structure. It was usual for the jewellers to fashion the same item in varying degrees of silver, thus allowing even the humblest families to bedeck their women in style. These days, only an expert can determine the value or rarity of certain pieces as the silver content varies so drastically. Rarely did a metallurgist hallmark his pieces, but those that have been signed fetch high prices from collectors both overseas and in the Kingdom.

In bygone days, silversmiths squatting over their anvils fashioning metal into jewellery was a common sight in any souq. They heated the metal over a fire in a process called annealing as it cooled and became soft, it could be bent into shape or hammered out flat. Embossing and engraving with decorative patterns were done after the metal was annealed. Round objects such as hollow bracelets and large balls were made in halves then soldered together. Soldering is the general method used to assemble the basic parts of the jewellery and also the manner in which gemstones, beads, coins and beads are amalgamated into the finished trinket.

Each semiprecious gemstone is traditionally associated with specific virtues and beliefs though many today take these ' beliefs' with the equally traditional 'pinch of salt'. Red stones, whether cornelian, agate, garnet or coral, are the most favoured. Agate is said to make the wearer a more agreeable person, while coral is for wisdom and garnet has the power to alleviate illnesses whose symptoms are bleeding and inflammation. Sapphires, which are extremely rare in Bedouin jewellery settings, are the emblem of chastity and green stones were believed by the ancients to prevent disease. Turquoise, along with amber and coral, have been the most common stones in Arab body adornment for more than two thousand years. Turquoise is said to glow when the wearer is happy but lose its lustre when the wearer is sad.

Today a few hundred herdsmen and their families still roam the Arabian desert living much as their grandfathers did, although the camel has been replaced by a fourwheel drive vehicle as the primary mode of transport. However, many Bedouin have abandoned their nomadic lifestyle altogether and settled in the cities. Their old traditions, such as the famed Bedouin hospitality and ceremonial folk dances have become an integral part of modern Arabian culture but their crafts have been seriously neglected, being now little regarded except on rare ceremonial occasions.

There is little reliablydocumented ethnography about Bedouin lifestyle. Because folk tales passed on to new generations are often shrouded in romantic fancy, it is imperative that artistic traditions survive until they can assume their proper importance in the cultural history of the Bedu.

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