Yemeni jewellery is known in many parts of the world for its exquisite craftsmanship. The country has a rich cultural history, but the artistry of its jewellery will always be one of its most admirable legacies.
For centuries, the most famous Yemeni jewellers were Jewish. The largest market for jewellery made of silver were women. The reason for this is that the amount of jewellery worn often indicates a woman’s status. This is true for urban, rural and nomadic societies in Yemen. Therefore, it is interesting that such a small sector of Yemen’s society manufactured such important cultural items.
Yemeni legend has it that the first jewellers were goldsmiths. Their origin might date back over 3000 years to the time of Queen Sheba. Already in the time of Queen Sheba, Yemen was known as a place rich with gold jewellery. Sheba dazzled Solomon with her arrival at his palace.
At that stage, gold was mined in southern Arabia. The wealth of southern Arabian gold and silver mines was of great interest to the surrounding nations. Gold bracelets and beads found in Marib showcase a rich tradition of jewellery.
Jewish influence was already visible in the South Arabian Himyarite Kingdom (115–525 CE). The Himyarite royal dynasty adopted Judaism in the late 4th century. However, many claim that the origin of famous Yemeni jewellery is the Jewish tribe of Banu Kainuka. They were known as goldsmiths in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The population was cruelly treated during Mohamed’s conquest. Jewish men were put to death and women and children sold into slavery. As a result, the few Jewish survivors left everything behind. They fled further south to what is now Yemen.
Later, Quranic laws forbade Muslims to work with precious metals. Consequently, the craft was left to Jews and their descendants. Jewish silversmiths were highly acclaimed craftsmen. They came to dominate the craft in precious metals in the southern Arabian Peninsula.
Among the Jewish population of Yemen, the trade of silversmithing was highly regarded. It was mainly carried out by members of rich families, educated men and mori (rabbi). They had to pass on the knowledge of centuries-old techniques from generation to generation. Accordingly, these secrets were closely guarded within the family. The Bawsani and Badihi families were two of the most famous for high-quality jewellery. Therefore, they signed their pieces.
Operation “Magic Carpet”
From the late 1800s, Yemeni silversmiths migrated to Israel. This continued into the early 1900s. In 1959, the last big flight of Yemenite Jews to Israel became known as Operation “Magic Carpet”. As a result, less than 50 Jews remain in Yemen today. They live around Raydah and in Sana’a.
The Origin of Silver
Gold was considered by Muslims to bring misfortune. Conversely, silver was blessed by the Prophet himself. Therefore, the demand for silver was enormous. However, there were only a few silver mines in Yemen.
As a result, jewellers had to rely on silver imports. Moreover, it was considered unacceptable to take over or inherit jewels and had them recast. They were taken to jewellers to fashion in traditional styles. And, if the amount was insufficient, silver would be added. Jewish Yemeni silversmiths were noted for their fine granulation and filigree. They produced fine quality women’s bracelets and necklaces.
In the middle of the 18th century, jewellers started to use Maria Teresa thalers. This was due to their high silver content (84%). These coins were minted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, it was widely in use in Yemen owing to the Mocha coffee trade with the French. Yemenis requested that their produce be paid with thalers. Then, Jewish silversmiths melted Maria Teresa silver coins to produce Janbiya (dagger) hilts, bridal jewellery and other silver objects.
Social Status of Yemeni Jewellery
In traditional Yemeni society, silver jewellery plays an important social role. Apart from enhancing the allure of women who wear it, it represents their social and economic status. As a result, women try to have as much as possible. Additionally, it is also used in various rituals.
Jewellery is part of a bride’s dowry (Mahr) and is a precondition for a wedding. The amount given to the bride reflects the social standing of the groom’s family. Afterwards, the dowry becomes the sole property of the bride. As a result, she keeps it as an insurance policy of sorts.
Muslim and Bedouin women would wear jewellery every day to show off their social status. However, Jewish women would only wear ornaments on festive occasions.
Coming of Age
This necklace is presented to a girl when she comes of age. It is a symbol of her reaching marriage age. These necklaces have parallel rows of small beads joined by rectangular plaques. These are finished off with triangular endpieces decorated in filigree. The traditional design is from medieval Islamic times but can be traced even further back.
In Yemen, money is given to the bride and the bride’s family before a wedding agreement can be concluded. Much of the bridal agreement includes jewellery that belongs to the woman. Therefore, she can do with it as she wishes. This dowry helps to provide social security and acts as her savings account. Additionally, it also raises her worth in others’ eyes and signifies a married status. Selling her jewellery brings disgrace to the family.
Western brides are known for their white dresses. However, Yemeni brides are known for their abundance of silver jewellery. Jewellery is an integral part of the wedding ritual. It is believed that the more silver jewellery a bride has, the more successful her marriage will be.
The total weight of silver jewellery of a Yemeni bride can be a few kilograms. Most of the silver decorations are worn on the chest and around the neck. Multiple rows of massive necklaces with pendants of different shapes can be found on her hands, neck, arms, and waist. These bracelets can extend up to her elbows. Additionally, each finger will have at least one ring. The bride’s head is covered by a Taj Cape. Underneath this is the gargush decorated with antique coins, pearls, beads. Brides wear the gargush and a triangle-shaped amulet decorated with red. This is meant to protect her fertility.
The Yemeni traditional wedding dress of the bride, called kvatifa, can be any colour. However, most girls prefer bright colours such as green, yellow, purple and pink. The dress is decorated with embroidery in silver or golden thread.
The use of talismans in Yemeni jewellery is connected to different symbols and magical forces. The Yemenis use them to hunt bad spirits and give power to the person wearing them. Therefore, the use has been passed on through generations through oral traditions. Talismans were used for specific occasions. For example, some are used for babies, others for women or elderly people. They are meant to protect them through various stages of their life. Similarly, Jewish babies and children used to wear hoods full of amulets. Typically, these included pearls, bells and coral beads.
Yemeni men do not wear jewellery. On the other hand, they have jambiya (ornately crafted daggers) which are made of rhino horn and inlaid with silver and precious stones. Ornaments for their camels and horses are also acceptable. A jambiya is the symbol of male honour in Yemen. A Yemeni who wears a jambiya worth thousands of dollars in his belt shows his social standing.
Yemeni Jewellery Techniques
Some Yemeni jewellery techniques were affiliated with specific craftsmen’s families. This is ancient art is passed on from father to son, from generation to generation. The technique of designing filigree jewellery was considered a family secret and is known only to the inner circles of the family. More than that, the families who traditionally knew the skill, were close to the crown hierarchy and enjoyed a respectable status. In general, pieces produced by silversmiths in rural regions were rougher and bigger than those in cities. Often dangles were added to the pieces to produce noise and chase the evil spirits away.
This style allows decorating an ornament with small decorations. This was made by cutting pieces of one material and placing them on the surface of another.
This technique dates back to antiquity. It allows tracing of a design on a silver sheet, marking a geometrical pattern on the front surface with the punch. Repeated or geometric patterns are achieved. This technique was found mostly in the Hardamawt region of Yemen.
This is a technique closely related to chasing that dates back to Biblical times. A handed pointed tool (burin) is used on a hard surface so that a very fine line can be drawn or words or figures can be inscribed.
This Yemeni jewellery technique enables the shaping of a malleable piece of silver by hammering it on the reverse side. A mould is used to obtain a specific form. Most bead spheres were made this way and then glued together.
This Yemeni jewellery technique also allows for the shaping of silver. It is done by twisting, bending and hammering it with tools after heating it.
In filigree, fine pliable threads of different thicknesses are twisted, braided, bent or folded to obtain fine interlaced patterns. The finest and most difficult pattern is open or lattice filigree which can be looked through.
This is a challenging technique that was perfected by Greek and Etruscan jewellers. It is used to create a three-dimensional effect. Small amounts of melted silver are dropped into water to obtain perfectly round granules. However, in Yemen, most silversmiths used a different technique. The silver granules (šaḏir) were prepared from silver wire cut into small pieces. Then, they were concealed within ashes that were heated by a flame. During the heating process, they obtained their round shape.
Yemeni Jewellery Styles
The jewellery styles are as diverse as the tribes and cultures within Yemen. Techniques and styles from other civilisations and tribes have been incorporated. These techniques were also transmitted over generations from father to son.
The style of jewellery varies from region to region and showcases shared heritage. For example, on the Red Sea coast, the jewellery shares a visual language with the opposite African coast. However, towards the East, Omani and Indian influences can be found. However, more inland jewellery shares forms and types with that of Saudi Arabia. This can be attributed to the migration of Jewish jewellers from Medina with the advent of Islam.
Women of different ethnic origins wore different styles of ornaments. Muslim women preferred applied decorations. On the other hand, Bedouin women favoured more robust silver ornaments with geometric designs. Married Muslim women wore a veil and a jewelled pin. The jewellery needed by Muslim women was mostly to keep the scarves together. Amabar (amber) beads were mostly used by Sanaani Muslim women, but in rural areas, they were also worn by Jewish girls.
Jewish women in Sanaa preferred fine filigree pieces. Serpent pieces or multi-stranded choker necklaces were mostly made for Jewish women. Jewish women also wore a special headdress called a gargush that looked like a hood, which differed according to their marital status. The Jewish jewels were pieces to add to the hood. These consisted of filigree gold, silver brooches, coins like the Maria Theresa Thaler, and several dangling heads.
Contribution to Cultural Heritage
While jewellery has always been a way to adorn the body, it also has significant meaning and symbolism. Both the history and the culture of Yemen are visible in its ancient tradition of jewellery making. Yemeni jewellery depicts different periods in history, religions, ethnicities, geographical locations. This shows the wealth of Yemeni heritage.
Yemeni culture demonstrates that jewellery is not only an expression of artistic and aesthetic character. Clearly, what it represents in Yemeni society also conveys Yemeni values and beliefs. Yemeni jewellery is used to ward off evil spirits, bring fertility and indicate the wearer’s social status. This is true for urban, rural and nomadic societies in Yemen. Therefore, Yemeni culture can be explored through the lens of its jewellery.
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