In 1960, when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, I obtained a study grant to visit the Middle East for the first time. This area subsequently became my late husband’s and my area of professional specialization over our thirty-year careers as United States diplomats. Toward the end of my initial visit, I traveled to Damascus, where I shopped for mementos for my family at a store in the Hamadiya Bazaar in the old city. Among the enormous array of Middle Eastern handicrafts on display, the wonderful bracelet shown in figure 6 caught my eye. It was pewter in color, not shiny, and made the clanking sound of a camel caravan. It held for me all the mystery and allure of the east that I was just getting to know, and its bulky size and geometric motif made it very pleasing to the eye. I had to have it! This bracelet became my personal signature piece of jewelry for many years to come, and the first in a collection that over the years has grown to more than nineteen hundred pieces.
Five years after that introduction to the Middle East, I married David Ransom, whom I had met in a summer Arabic class at Princeton University. As we embarked on our tandem diplomatic careers, Arab silver jewelry became a joint pursuit. In the late 1960s, while posted in Jeddah, we learned that old family pieces were melted to make new jewelry for a bride. We began asking to see the baskets of discarded jewelry in silversmiths’ shops destined for their melting pots and found lovely old Saudi pieces ready for destruction. Together we felt an urge to learn, document, and preserve an art form that we both found unique and beautiful. Some of the jewelry pieces were coarsely made, clearly done by amateurs or beginners. Others were more artistically assembled, such as the necklace in figure 4 that we rescued from a Jeddah melting pot. David not only shared my enthusiasm but over the years, on his own, found some of our best pieces, for example the gilded silver medallions in figure 3.
Our two postings to Yemen, in 1966 and 1975, proved pivotal to our study of silver and to the expansion of our collection. Along with its remarkable history, glorious monuments, and impressive physical beauty, Yemen created a uniquely beautiful architecture, a complicated and intriguing social structure, and exquisite, labor-intensive handicrafts. Of all the crafts ‒ building, textile and basket weaving, leather working, embroidery, and woodcarving and carpentry ‒, none is more beautiful and distinctly Yemeni than traditional silver jewelry.
For centuries, gold and silver jewelry was produced throughout Yemen by Jewish and Muslim silversmiths, with remarkable continuity in design and techniques. The earliest evidence we have of the craft comes from the time of the Queen of Sheba, as shown in figures 2 and 5 from the British Museum. In the biblical story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, somewhere between the twelfth and tenth centuries BC, as related in 1 Kings 10:22, there is mention of the queen taking silver and gold and other commodities from Ophir, or Yemen. In the tenth century AD, the Yemeni scholar Hassan al-Hamdani wrote about the silver mine al-Radrad in Wadi Harib Nihm, close to Sanaa; supposedly it was operated by Persians from before Islam to the early Middle Ages. There were silver mines throughout Asia Minor, in Iran, in what is now Afghanistan, and in eastern Turkmenistan. There was heavy trade in silver coins across the silk route, some of which went into jewelry.
But when I began my research in Yemen I quickly learned that while jewelry was sometimes made from old, broken, recycled pieces, it almost always came from melted-down Maria Theresa thalers, like those in figure 1. The Maria Theresa thaler (MT) was minted in Austria after the first year of the reign of the Habsburg empress, Maria Theresa (r. 1740–80). It became, in effect, the local currency in Yemen due to the expansion of trade with Europe, based on the export of two important Yemeni crops: coffee and indigo. When she died, a new coin was struck in the image of the new ruler, but it was not accepted in Yemen, Thus, for more than two hundred years, MTs have borne the date 1780, comprised 83.3 percent silver, and weighed 28.0668 grams. Called ‘French riyal’ in local parlance, the MT is still found in Yemeni silver shops.
In Yemen, silver coins served as a savings bank for many people, especially Bedouin and tribesmen. They were the key element in the marriage contract. (In Islam, the groom pays for the right to marry his bride). Milak is the engagement contract drawn up by the groom and the father of the bride before the Muslim religious leader, the imam, and two witnesses. This contract is more important than the wedding ceremony that takes place much later, for it is when the groom gives the mahr, or bride price. The bride’s father usually spent a percentage of the mahr for silver jewelry, which, according to Muslim law, became a woman’s personal wealth ‒ her right according to custom and tradition. The jewelry declared her status as a married woman of property. The fact that silver jewelry was sold by weight enabled women to use it as their portable bank account. A woman always knew the value of the pieces she owned. She sold her silver in case of need, but often bought additional pieces when she had the means. It serves as her insurance throughout her lifetime and ideally the decisions of how to use it are hers. What was left when she died was often used to pay for her burial.
However, most women stopped wearing silver in the 1950s when the price of silver fell in value and the price of gold increased dramatically. Their taste turned from traditional silver jewelry to gold pieces, many of them imported from abroad. This trend was perhaps accelerated, especially in North Yemen, by the departure of most of the Yemeni Jewish silversmiths to Israel in 1949, who were known throughout the Middle East for their delicate work, and also by the influx of Yemeni workers into Saudi Arabia when the price of oil spiked in the 1970s. There they were exposed to new and different fashions, as well as attractive modern appliances, which could prove more useful than traditional jewelry.
Silver jewelry is, indeed, the jewel in the crown of Yemen’s history. And that heritage is quickly disappearing as silversmiths die out and gold takes the place of silver in the popular sense of what ‘wealth’ is. To my immense regret, the old silver is being melted down to be sold as silver ingot ‒ a tradition traded for cash. Much of my goal in writing this book and collecting the jewelry was to preserve this tradition and this heritage. Most of the silversmiths I interviewed whilst researching for this book were in their seventies or eighties and retired or near retirement. Their sons had, for the most part, taken up other livelihoods. The women who had worn the silver were in their sixties and older. In ten years or so it will be almost impossible to gather their stories.
An edited extract from Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba: Regional Yemeni Jewelry by Marjorie Ransom, published by the American University in Cairo Press.
Text by Marjorie Ransom
Marjorie Ransom is a Middle East specialist who has lived and worked throughout the Arab world, where she began researching and collecting traditional silver jewelry, particularly from Yemen. Her renowned collection of Middle Eastern jewelry has been exhibited at American museums.
In association with I. B. Tauris: www.ibtauris.com