In the Middle East jewelry has more value than just being ornamental. In addition to being beautifully crafted pieces of personal adornment, jewelry also carries economic, social and magical values. The financial aspect of jewelry during this period of global crisis is of extreme importance as proven by a succinct Arabic expression, “Bracelets are for difficult times.”
The basis for any woman’s jewelry collection is her marriage. The items she receives are her own personal possessions; they are hers to keep and do with as she pleases. On her wedding day, the glint of jewelry will impress onlookers and send out a clear message of her value as wife and family member. In addition, the dowry serves as insurance in case her husband should leave her. Thus the size of the dowry is heavily negotiated by the two families before the engagement is announced. How important this jewelry was becomes apparent in the names of some items. A necklace from Yemen is called lazim, which means as much as “a must” in Arabic. This piece was simply non-negotiable and had to be there. During the course of a woman’s lifetime, more jewelry is acquired after the birth of each child or when there is money to spare.
To show off both wealth and status, coins are often incorporated into jewelry, face veils and other personal adornments. The monetary value of the coin is annulled by the fact that it has been soldered, pierced, cut and embellished with colored stones. Yet the use of coins predates the introduction of hallmarking. By using coins, the wearer could indicate silver content and connected value in an era where there was no other method of establishing guaranteed silver content in jewelry. One of the most famous coins used was the Austrian Maria Theresia Thaler, the first coin to have a constant and reliable high silver content. In addition to famous coins like the Maria Theresia Thaler, many local coins or other coins that were circulated in a certain country were worked into jewelry and costumes. A comparative study into the use of coins illustrates economical landscapes and the contact range of the wearer. For example, on the Arab Peninsula many Indian rupees are used, jewelry from Central Asia features Russian coins, and jewelry from the Maghreb makes use of many European coins. Around the beginning of the 20th century, most countries around the Mediterranean introduced their own hallmarking systems. Hallmarks and silver stamps were often used on the outside of a jewelry item, which indicated wealth and status.
When a woman becomes the head of her own household she becomes also responsible for the family’s finances. Her husband earns an income and the wife is responsible for organizing the household efficiently: food, clothing, school uniforms and building up savings for unforeseen circumstances. Although a husband’s income is often not enough to cover daily expenses, the woman has to find practical ways to save for major and future expenditures. These savings often take the form of jewelry. Throughout the Middle East, women work in what is known as the shadow economy: assisting in bath houses, working as midwives, or creating handcrafted items for touristic purposes. The extra income created by these jobs is often invested in jewelry, sometimes with the help of an informal cooperation network. Using the extra cash to buy jewelry is always preferred rather than depositing money in a bank account because jewelry is regarded as a solid investment—a hard asset.
In countries where not everyone has access to insurance, where economic crises are common and where there’s inflation, it is still deemed preferable to invest in objects that can be sold at the market rate when needed, rather than hoard money that may lose its value over time. In the current global economic crisis, the women of the Middle East may have acted wisely. It is interesting to note that the value jewelry is directly related to the weight of a piece’s silver content and seen simply as a commodity. And because of this, a large part of the Middle East’s economy does not revolve around official banks, but rather dances around the wrists of its women.
Sigrid van Roode is a heritage consultant. She has been collecting and researching traditional silver jewelry from the Middle East and North Africa for almost two decades. Her study into this jewelry is presented in lectures, articles, the full-color book Desert Silver and an informative website www.bedouinsilver.com.