أول الشجرة بذرة “A tree begins with a seed”. This Arabic proverb describes how something big always starts with something small. Something as small as a piece of jewelry can be a symbol of peace, unity, and empowerment. This is especially true in the Middle East, where jewelry has been and continues to be a precious expression of freedom and individuality.
Gold and silver are the most common precious materials found in ornamental pieces throughout the Middle East, such as in Iran and Egypt. Before trade routes were developed and the mixing of cultures occurred, silver was the most abundant material found in these areas; as such, it was featured prominently in jewelry: headdress ornaments, bracelets, frontlets and so on. Jewelry has long been an important expression of Arabia’s beauty, wealth and status. In fairy tales, myths, poetry, and songs, jewelry was used to provoke, enchant and inspire.
Jewelry was especially significant for women, who found pride, identity and security through them- the pieces belonged to them and them alone, and they could do what they wished with them. Upon a woman’s death, her jewelry was often melted down, since it would be inappropriate to give her treasures and personal possessions to another woman to have. Though it may seem as if this practice would eliminate the history of jewelry, craftsmen who melted down the jewelry would also remake the destroyed pieces from copies, helping to preserve tradition. Therefore, jewelry became a crucial part of the lives of these women and of Middle Eastern society as a whole. However, urban women would own and wear more gold and more sophisticated designs, while their poorer small town and nomadic sisters would stick to silver and generally less intricate styles
With the advent of gold, modern jewelry even in poorer areas has changed. Silver is now used less for fashion and more for preserving a culture and traditional art forms in the face of political displacement. Modern gold pieces have become even more sumptuous and extravagant, and their importance in these cultures has increased; the prominent display of a bride’s jewelry can be an essential element of weddings. Brides will often spend more than $5,000 on their wedding jewelry alone; the most popular pieces in the UAE include the classic solitaire diamond ring, an 18-carat white gold ring set with diamonds, and a plain 21-carat yellow gold ring.
Jewelry also has religious significance for people in the Middle East even today. Throughout Arabia, most Bedouin jewelry features bells, chains and dangling beads, which are always in bunches of three, five or seven, as these numbers are believed to ward off the evil eye. The snakehead, which is often found at the end of open silver bracelets, is believed to protect against snake bites. Protective amulets called the “hirz” contain Quran verses or one of the 99 names of Allah engraved in gold or silver. The Hand of Fatima (also known as the Eye of Fatima) continues to be a popular talisman of sorts. Inspired by Fatima Zahra, Prophet Muhammad's daughter, it is made of either silver or gold in the shape of an open palm, and is carried as a good luck charm. Symbols of protection against the evil eye continue to manifest in modern jewelry. In certain parts of Saudi Arabia, traditional Bedouin necklaces are often adorned with ancient motifs such as the hand charm or crescents, but they are not superstitious. Instead, they are a rather romantic reminder of symbols often described in traditional Arabic love poetry.
For women who live around the Persian Gulf, jewelry has always been more than fashion or a means of attraction. A woman’s jewelry was not just a means of seduction, it was a means of living. Women in these regions wear jewelry not just for special occasions, but also for their everyday lives, such as when sewing clothes, grinding flour or kneading a dough. Jewelry for these women is a way to empower and express themselves. It is often among their most prized possessions, and it reflects their cultural heritage and ancient traditions that give them their sense of identity today.
Author: Elena Parapounsky, Terra Adorn Ethnographic Writer