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Once A Lost Art, Traditional Arabic Jewelry Is Once Again In The Spotlight

The elaborate journey of jewelry design in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia dates back to antiquity but its legacy almost became legend – until now

Photography by Ziga Mihelcic

“Growing up, most members of my family were already wearing modern jewelry designs. But my aunt HRH Princess Sultana bint Abdulaziz always used to wear soldered Hejazi pieces with jeweled amulets made of gold and diamonds,” remembers HRH Princess Bassma Bint Majid Bin Abdulaziz. “My other aunt, HRH Princess Nouf bint Abdulaziz, would wear the traditional Saudi ‘rashrash’ and the rings with attached bracelets. Once, my grandmother HRH Princess Moudi, the wife of HRH King Abdulaziz, gave me two diamond rings to wear to a wedding – they had been a gift from the King. They were both round-cut and I was so happy to wear them.”

These fond memories are just one of the reasons that the princess and her fellow Art of Heritage trustees, HRH Princess Sara Al Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, HRH Princess Moudi Bint Khalid bin Abdul Aziz, and HRH Princess Haifa al Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, decided to create the cultural trust back in 1986, hoping to preserve much of the design legacy of the Arabian Peninsula. Their passion has fostered the conservation of more than 60 000 objects, including pieces of traditional jewelry that would almost certainly have become a lost art. Modernization and a shift in tastes both played their part, as has the tribal tradition of melting down jewelry to form new styles, which has inevitably seen many antique pieces disappear.

This labor of love has lasted decades – collecting and purchasing traditional pieces from across the Kingdom. But the hard work has paid off and, earlier this year, part of the jewelry collection went on display at two exhibitions in the region – Hidden Treasures: Jewelry from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at Dubai Design District, and Design Crossroads: The Jewellery of Saudi Arabia at the Bahrain National Museum.The exhibitions were curated by museologist and researcher Pramod Kumar, who worked with Art of Heritage over the last decade to map the evolution of this precious art. “Whereas the exhibitions showcased traditional pieces from the late 18th to the mid 20th century, evidence suggests that jewelry in the Arabian Peninsula dates back as far as 3,000 years ago, when it was crafted with seashells, pearls, and stones,” he explains. “Then, we saw the introduction of gold and glass.”

Pieces from the Dubai Exhibition

The designs in the exhibitions are more decorative and robust than their antique counterparts. “The bulk are silver, made into headpieces, earrings, nose rings, necklaces, bracelets, belts, rings, and anklets, as well as face veils and bejeweled textiles that were worn as accessories. They represent the full range of jeweled objects that were personal possessions and accoutrements of Bedouin women,” Kumar shares.

Women who lived in nomadic tribes used jewelry as ceremonial dress and currency. Wearing their riches on their body was a safe way to transport it while traveling. “When needed, coins and silver would be melted down to pay their way,” explains Kumar. “In more prosperous times, the jewelry would be augmented with more silver, coins, and precious stones – almost like a form of savings.”

Originally published in the June 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia.

Pieces from the Dubai Exhibition

During this era, the Kingdom was a melting pot of infuences, with pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina from all corners of the world, bringing with them their own tastes in design and workmanship. “Silver manufacturing began with basic annealing and hammering followed by cutting, embossing, repoussé, chasing, and engraving,” describes Kumar. Stones used included turquoise, garnets, carnelian, amber, coral, pearls, agate, glass, faience and, more recently, materials such as plastics and resins. Trims, tassels, and stringing needs were fulfilled by hemp, leather, cotton, wool, silk, and synthetic threads.

Saudi Arabia’s geographical closeness to Africa, India, and other Arab states meant that the Kingdom’s different regions evolved to have their own styles of jewelry – heavily influenced by their neighboring countries. The Kingdom’s central location also made it a trade crossroads for the East and West, bringing further design influences with it. “Such exhibits have invited us to think of design as a language that traveled along the same routes as incense and spices, science, and religious pilgrims,” says Somaya Badr, CEO of Art of Heritage. “Design languages were exchanged, developed, and put into conversation with ancient repertoires of material culture. is displays the disparate influence of designs from within the Arabian Peninsula and across the Red Sea and over land routes extending to Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey, ancient Rome and Greece, Egypt, and South Asia.”


Pieces from the Dubai Exhibition

What fascinates is how the jewelry managed to maintain its distinct heritage through traditional design elements, in particular the use of geometric patterns and in the types of jewelry that remained fashionable. “The most popular style was the rashrash,” explains Princess Bassma. “It’s a traditional long gold multilayered necklace, with the strands held together at symmetrical points with carved gold pendants. It usually has many tassels, which create a ‘rashrash’ sound when the wearer moves, hence its name.”

Fast-forward to the present day, where a taste for fine jewelry and more minimal aesthetics rule – is there a place for traditional design outside of the museum display case? “Art of Heritage has created modern adaptions of traditional textiles and dress and there is the possibility of doing the same with the jewelry. We have a design department that can use the collection we’ve acquired as inspiration,” says Badr, who believes there’s a market for modern pieces influenced by traditional designs.

A bride wearing traditional jewelry.

She’s not alone. HRH Princess Nourah bint Mohammed Alfaisal, founder and designer at Nuun Jewels, has made no secret of the inspiration that Bedouin jewelry has provided for her high jewelry collections, juxtaposing modern shapes with traditional forms, volumes, and textures. “I first started really noticing jewelry around 1985, at family occasions like weddings,” she recalls. “I was still young and did not really understand the heritage but I recognized the beauty and artistry.” She’s hopeful that more designers will follow in her footsteps: “There is an abundance of talent in Saudi for every kind of design, and jewelry is absolutely one of them.” It’s a sentiment Kumar agrees with. “We’re about to see a resurgence of interest in Saudi history and traditional designs from Saudi youth,” he says, attributing this to the newfound accessibility to historical pieces, mostly through exhibitions. “Archaeological digs in the region are still in their infancy and we expect a lot more information and inspiration to be found. We’re likely to see influences appear in modern jewelry in the next four to five years because of this.” Traditional jewelry is still being found in souks in smaller towns and villages in the Kingdom – but be prepared to take on tourists and collectors alike. These heritage pieces are once again a valuable commodity.

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