Walking down a narrow corridor inside Paris’ Musée de l’Institut du Monde Arabe—the world’s most important institute of Arab culture outside the Arab world—and one is flanked by rows of what looks like armor. Metal silver disks, chains, and amulets are assembled to hypnotic effect along a long wall and are laid out inside a glass table. On second glance, however, and one notices that the almost meter-long chains in fact feature tiny metal hooks—they are earrings.
This, is the rich private collection of extraordinary jewelry from the late 18th to early 20th century handed down from mother to daughter for generations from the Maghreb countries—Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
Here, garnet, carnelian, colored glass, amber, and amazonite are crafted into (mostly) big silver pieces. I point to a pair of thick cuffs so large they actually resemble leg manacles. They are in fact anklets, and my guide mentions that most of the pieces are everyday jewelry. If the anklets are bulky, other pieces are minutely detailed, geometric, and even feature graphic representations of fish or birds—symbols of fertility; while amulets serve to ward off the evil eye; and spiral-shaped motifs motion to the eternal. Here, shapes, forms, and craftsmanship all weave together to recount the wearer’s story and that of her community and surrounding landscapes.
In the Maghreb countries—like anywhere else in the world—one’s jewels communicate social status; pieces blend various histories, legends, and techniques. Notably, in parts of Tunisia, many women create their own jewels, intended for their wedding trousseaus. Jewelry making mimicks that of sewing, and beautiful jewels consisting of pearls and coral are elevated with threads of gold.
Tunisia, in particular, is renowned for its use of large silver pieces, which are melted and recycled time and time again (making it very difficult to source jewelry from earlier epochs). These big pieces were generally produced in the Southern cities of Tataouine and Ghomrassen and feature icononography, like the khamsa (hands), and are worn as brooches on the scarves of Tunisian women.
Just before exiting the exhibition, we come face to face with a large photograph of a Tunisian woman sitting on a stone. Her gaze looks off in the distance and her jewelry, on full display, captures one’s eye. Against a backdrop of burnt orange and bright blue clothing, her wrists are decorated with silver cuffs, while a chain is hung across her clothes connected to two large silver crescent moons. Her creased face and white hair indicate that she might soon pass on her jewels to a daughter, or granddaughter, like generations before her. As the eye travels down, the jewelry serves as a sharp contrast to the cloth and rubber sneakers on her feet. It is nothing short of a surprising display of decorative dexterity, and a nod to maintaining one’s ancestral costume customs in today’s mass-market world.
Des trésors à porter: bijoux et parures du Maghreb at the Musée de l’Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris until January 8th.