Yemenite Jewellery and Silverwork


Highlight of Yemenite Cultural Heritage…

by Aviva Klein-Franke
First published in: San’a‘ – History and Cultural Heritage, Volume 2, 2005

Historically, it was the ancient frankincense trade that brought fame to southern Arabia. There were also other components of Yemenite culture that contributed to the wealth of Yemen: architecture, mining of precious metals, production of silver goods and jewellery, embroidery and weaving. The artisan knowledge of creating glamorous jewellery and embroidering fabric was no less important a contribution in preserving the wealth and fame of Yemen through the ages. Granulation and filigree techniques used in jewellery, as well as work with gold and silver wire on cloth, were considered the highlight of southern Arabian culture. In comparison to jewellery from countries of the Middle East, the design and quality of Yemenite jewellery were held in high esteem.

The Wealth of Gold and Silver Mines in Southern Arabia

Silver and gold were mined extensively in Yemen until the late Middle Ages. The wealth of southern Arabia was of great interest to the nations of the Middle East prior to the 7th century CE. We may get some idea about the wealth of southern Arabia from the list of gifts that the Queen of Sheba brought to King Solomon on her visit to Jerusalem (1. King 9). In literature and other sources Yemenite jewellery appears in the context of descriptions of beautiful objects and was considered to be of good quality, as, for example, is seen in the pre-lslamic poetry of Imru‘ al Qais, which mentions Yemenite jaz‘ or ‚aqiq, which is agate or onyx. ((See interpretation of Daum: 16,25.)) Other examples appear in the book 1001 Nights: in the story of the 22nd night makes note of the wealth from Yemen. It is mentioned the story about Noor ed-Din and his son and Shems ed-Din and his daughter, that the daughter appeared with bridal outfit and wore a Yemenite necklace: „Round her neck was a necklace worth thousands, composed of jewels such as neither a King of El-Yemen nor a Caesar ever collected“. ((1001 Nights contains many mentions of precious jewellery and embroidered tabric from Yemen, see Lane, vol.1: 246. E. Littmann, vol.1: 248, translated here: „Halsband aus jemenitischer Arbeit“. See also in vol. Ill; 118 and in vol. IV: 605, 681, 621; Heimberg: 333.))

The King of Persia invaded Yemen in part due to the riches of southern Arabia. ((Persia helped the Kingdom of Himyar in southern Yemen to win the war against the Ethiopians and afterwards remained to govern the country, see Playfair: 58.)) The sheikhs and emirs who came to Sanaa to thank the king of the Himyarite for expelling the Ethiopians from the country were sent home with many gifts. Among the gifts that the king gave them were two sheets of gold and silver and a bag of precious stones. It is this occasion that, in Yemen, prompted the coining of the phrase: „They came from Mecca because of the gold“ ((Mittwoch: 58; Daum: 25.)) Also al-Hamdani, who lived in the 10th century and was a silversmith like many in his family, extols the ability of the Jewish silversmiths to produce very thin sheets of silver several meters long. ((Toll: 63, 146; Playfair; 144.))

Al-Hamdani mentions that Persians continued to mine gold and silver in Yemen until the 9th century. The Persians kept the famous Radrad mine in north Yemen, in the region of Wadi Harib-Nihm, working at full capacity. The lots acquired by the Persian king were abundant enough to produce one million coins a year (almost 3000 kg). The number of Persian words that infiltrated the vocabulary of the silversmiths in Yemen is remarkable. According to al-Hamdani many silversmiths from Persia and Babylon worked in Yemen, and Yemenites travelled and worked in countries in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. ((See Allan: 3,5,12; Toll: 63; Robin: 129.)) Al-Hamdani further mentions that the Jews of Yemen communicated with Jewish communities in Babylon, Persia and Palestine and this connection was maintained throughout the ages. Artisans in the Babylon and Yemen communities were known for their skill in producing thin silver and gold wire with which they decorated clothing and which they applied to dresses like embroidery, and this technique was known in al-Hamdani time as „Jewish work“ (Probably as is seen on the ‘antari of bridal outfit in Fig. 1).

As mentioned above, embroidery had traditionally belonged to the realm of silversmiths‘ work, because of the use the gold and silver cords, fatil for the decoration of garments, on the scarf and on the cuffs on the woman’s legging.

There are a few famous designs of cuffs used in bridal apparel, such as the design with the silver-wire which was fastened with red-silk cord, covering the area in a carpet-like pattern called kebir or basta‘ or the legging’s cuff which was designed in the form of a star called, mekaukab (Fig. 2).

The silversmiths also used the metal-wire for weaving of Belts, hizm. The belts were woven in a unique tablet-weaving technique, called tesig. To get the shiny design for the belt, used the weavers gold or silver cord for the second weft (Figs. 3, 4). ((I would like to thank the director of the Museum of Ethnography in Sanaa, Mrs. Jamila for permitting me to take and publish photo no, 3. Also many thanks I owe to Dr. Vossen who let me access to Rathjens collection and the permission to publish his material.)) Like Yemenite jewellery, also objects with technique were renowned in the past far beyond Yemen itself. ((Until the middle of the 20th century belts were mostly produced with the tablet weaving technique. There are two wefts, the second weft was used for the metal cord. The manufacture of these belts was time-consuming and therefore they were expensive to purchase. People who could not afford them bought the embroidered belts. The tabletweaving technique was one employed by Jewrs exclusively. Today we do not find craftsmen who are able to produce belts with the ancient tablet-weaving technique, but we can find similar belts in Yemenite markets which are imported from India. I interviewed the last existing weaver in 1972-1973, and documented the process of the production of this work. Embroidered clothing from Yemen was very popular in the past and to this day there is demand for it for bridal attire, see Klein-Franke/1974: 225; Littmann, vol. 3: 118 and vol. IV: 621, 681; Müller-Lancet/1976: 27.))

During the Ayyubid (1173-1229) and the Rasulid (1229-1454) rules in Yemen, the country established trade relations with countries in the Mediterranean and with many countries and islands in the Far East. During this period, Yemen experienced remarkable cultural influences. Merchants from Yemen travelled extensively, bought and sold merchandise from Spain to India and Ceylon, and traded in goods from Japan and China. Many foreigner craftsmen came to work in Yemen. The port of Aden was an international transit point for goods from the East and the West. Silver objects from Yemen were still in demand in the countries of the Middle East. Because of the quality of the craftsmanship and the exceptionally pretty style of the jewellery, there were many requests for Yemenite artisans to work abroad. Egyptians and Syrian merchants traded precious metals with Yemenite jewellery and its silver and gold wares. Objects of silver from Yemen were highly coveted by kings and sultans. The Yemenites would send an annual gift to the Egyptian ruler: ships full of silver utensils, jewellery and precious gems. The fame of the Yemenite craftsmen was probably the reason they were invited to design two lamps for the Ka‘ba in Mecca, and it was a silversmith from Yemen named Ibn al-Ta‘izzi who decorated the doors of the Ka‘ba with gold and silver. ((Porter: 228; Ahroni: 79.)) Almost 600 years after al-Hamdani’s account, we read about Yemenite silversmiths in the writings of Niebuhr, who travelled to Yemen in the year 1763 and also visited many cities in the Middle East. Niebuhr praised the fine filigree work of the Jewish silversmiths and mentioned that he met Yemenite silversmiths in Muscat, Baghdad and Basra. ((Niebuhr: 422; Scurla: 129.))

In the late 19th century jewellery from Yemen was sold in the antique markets in Vienna. Large quantities of Yemenite jewellery, ethnographic objects and manuscripts were brought to Austria by travellers and scientific delegations. Yemenite jewellery was partly sold in Yemen itself and partly in the markets of the Middle East, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan. ((During this period, the „Museum für Völkerkunde“ in Vienna founded its first collection of Yemenite jewellery. It was brought to Vienna by Eduard Glaser, Theodor Graf, David Müller and Wilhelm and Marie Hein. The handsome jewellery astonished the experts. Because they were seen as rare examples and unique in their style, they became objects of study and imitation both at vocational schools and by silversmiths. Copies of Yemenite jewellery were made at the ‚Academy of Art‘, The museum in Vienna provided objects from its collection to be copied in the “Fachschule fur Quincaillerie” in Goblonz (today in the Czech Republic), see Janata 1989/90:41-44, 136-137, 185-187, and by Inge Seiwert: 17, the illustration of a imitated Yemenite labbeh from Goblonz.))

The fame of Yemenite jewellery and the skill of the silversmiths from Yemen was remembered three decades later, when the „Museum fur Volkerkunde“ in Hamburg needed it in the 1930’s to repair the jewellery which were discovered in Troy. ((Which was discovered in the 19th century by Heinrich Schliemann.)) Yemenite silversmiths were asked to do the job. It’s possible that Carl Rathjens, who was at this time associated with the museum, suggested employing the Jewish silversmiths from Yemen. Rathjens, who visited Yemen four times before the Second World War, knew personally silversmiths from Sanaa and was familiar with the high quality of their work. He took a number of photos of silversmiths in their workshops. Rathjens also photographed a historical collection of jewellery that was designated to be melted down by the silversmiths, shortly before it was thrown into the fire. Melting old jewellery and coins to obtain raw material was a wide-spread custom in Islamic countries. ((See Brisch: 92; Yavne’eli: 131; Brauer: 262: Klein-Franke/1982: 82.))

The Social Impact of New Regulations in Islamic Yemen

With the adoption of Islam in Yemen in the 7th century, many religious restrictions governing the lives and activities of Muslims were imposed. These changes were radical with regard to the silversmith’s work. The prohibition against the accumulation of wealth and against the use of utensils made from precious metal resulted in the decline of the production of jewellery and men’s tools. Men continued to order rings and items to embellish their dagger belts and sheaths. The style, quality and quantity of the accessories and decorations applied to the jambiyya’s sheath and belt became status symbols. They are the silver-case for the tobacco powder, the ketab, the knife, the cylindric amulet, the kohol or koblah, the cosmetic container for the eyes and the belt buckle. (Pigs. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). ((I would like to thank Mrs. M, Ransom, Ms. K. Quirks and Mr. M. Cernea for let me study their collection and to permit me use photos for publications.)) Increasingly, however, women became the primary clients for jewellery because the restrictions were not strictly applied to them. Besides, it was the bridegroom’s duty to provide jewellery for his future wife.

Often items of jewellery were mentioned among the conditions of the “Bride-price” and dowry in the marriage-contract signed with the bride’s family.

Hence, the decline in demand for luxury utensils caused the closing of many mines. In addition the widespread belief among Muslims that precious metals were impure and bewitched caused many Moslems to leave the silversmith profession in the course of time and consequently many crafts were taken up by non-Muslims.

There were famous Jewish silversmiths prior to the rise of Islam not only in Yemen, but also in central Arabia. While in other regions of Arabia non-Islamic groups eventually disappeared or converted to Islam, we find Jews in Yemen continuously until our time. ((The Qainuka tribe in particular was well-known for its Jewish silversmiths and ironsmiths until the seventh century CE. Apart from the information provided in Kings I, mention is made of contact between the two in Isaiah. 60/6, Ezekiel 27/19-25, Job 6/9, and Chronic, 1 4/38-43. The Jews of South Arabia are not a homogeneous group. They settled in many waves, and therefore there are various versions as to their first arrival in Yemen. But until the 10th century CE, there are neither authentic nor direct accounts in Hebrew from the Jews regarding their own history in South Arabia. There are written sources from Syria, Egypt, Babylon, Ethiopia and in Arabic mentioning their presence in the region.))

The prevalent oral tradition among Yemenite Jews goes back to biblical times. This tradition transmitted from generation to generation places their arrival in Arabia at the time of King Solomon. Their first settlements, „resh galut“ in Yemen were in Uzal or Yezal on the Nuqum mountain near Sanaa, in Tan´im and on the Mt. Sabur near Ta‘izz. A legend tells us that the Queen of Sheba heard from her Jewish subjects about the wisdom of King Solomon, and they accompanied her on her journey to Jerusalem. Among Yemenite Jews there is also an oral tradition that dates their arrival to South Arabia at the time of Moses. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, it is said, one group had separated from Moses after crossing the sea and travelled southward, claiming the land of the Qaine (Gen. 15/19) as one of the regions which God had promised to Abraham. ((In southern Yemen, east of Aden, the ancient port of Kenna was discovered. This port was very famous in the past; caravans use to depart from it for Palmyra and Chaldea in the 3rd century CE. It is questionable if we can identify this port as the one claimed in the tradition. See Daum: 11-12.))

The destruction in Jerusalem of the First Temple in 587 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE (Jer. 29/2, 38/2) caused more waves of immigration to South Arabia. Many silversmiths and other craftsmen who were working in the Temple were expelled to Babylon in the 6th century BCE. Jews arrived to South Arabia at this time both directly from Judea as well as from Babylon. ((See Habshush/Qafih: 249; Gamliel: Introduction; Ahroni: 20.))

The truth of the legend about their arrival to Arabia will have to be proven with future archaeological discoveries. There is evidence from the 3rd century CE of Jews living in South Arabia who were in contact with Palestine Jewry. In 1936, a sarcophagus was unearthed in Beit-She‘arim that contains references to famous Jews from Himyar whose bodies were carried from south Arabia to be buried in the lower Galilee. ((These were probably prominent Jews; otherwise their bodies would not have travelled such a long distance. The Jews of Yemen claim that there were families in their communities from the aristocracy of Judea and members of the family of the High Priest who served in the Temple.)) More evidence from this period is the discovery of a 4th century CE bi-lingual inscription from Bayt al-Ashwal which belonged to a Jew. After he finished to built his house he praised the new home. Another discovery from the 4th-5th century CE is the inscription on a pillar in a mosque in Bayt al-Hadhir, which includes part of the lists of the Priests-course who were serving in the temple in Jerusalem. ((See more about these discoveries by Degen: 302; Daum: 227; 302; Qorah: 3-4; Habshush/Qafih/1961: 249; Hirschberg: 54-55. Gamliel: l-2;Watt: 192; Shivtiel: 391-392; Klein-Franke/2000: 326; Ahroni: 34,40,53; Hungerford-Pollen: 15; Muchawsky: 13.)) Further proof of Jewish settlements in south Arabia can be found in the Hebrew inscriptions on tombstones from the 9th century, which were discovered in Aden. The year of death on the epitaph is given in relation to the date of destruction of the Temple. ((Ben Zvi: 417.))

The new Islamic regulations prompted major economic changes. A primary source of income was denied to the Jews. More and more of them had to give up their land and farms to become craftsmen, and the majority became silversmiths. There was a reciprocal relationship between the Jews, as artisans, and the Muslims, as owners and cultivators of the land. Jews were essential to the economy of the country because of their knowledge and skill in producing and repairing tools and jewellery, but they themselves were dependent on fresh agricultural products from the farmers. ((There were similar patterns of development in other Islamic countries: Berliner and Burchard: 322; Fischel: 47; Narkiss: 11; Brauer: 5; Goitein/1967: 262; Shivtiel: 424; Brisch: 90; Rosen-Ayalon: 8 ; Shinar: 32.))

The Social Status of the Silversmith

The silversmith’s workshop was called sana‘a or masna‘, the silversmith craft was called yishqe or sajegh, which means drawing, and according to Qafih, means doing filigree work. Silversmiths who worked for the Muslims were called yishqe min hag al-Qabayil and those who produced primarily for Jews were called yishqe min hag al-Yahood. Jews neither ground nor cut the gems. This was completely in the hands of Muslim merchants, Jews would buy gems, coral and pearls by weight. As for the raw material of precious metals, over the last 300 years the silversmiths have obtained it by melting coins or old jewellery provided by the client. ((Qafih/1961: 227; Saphir: 169; Brauer: 239; Ratzahbi/1943: 5; Hubareh: 380; Gingrich /HeiG: 22, 124.)) When a silversmith was remarkably talented and an expert in designing and producing glorious jewellery, he was called al-usta‘ which also referred to one who worked with gold, created filigree or who worked in the mint. ((Al usta’ is also a term for a highly educated Rabbi.))

Generally speaking, silversmiths preferred keeping their knowledge within the family, but there were no closed guilds. Boys from poorer families were encouraged by their parents to learn this profession; for them, silver work was a chance to ensure a better future. The silversmith would create jewellery according to his individual tradition. He passed his knowledge down to his son as his father before had done before him. ((Brauer: 237; Hubareh: 61.))

It was not the custom to prepare a sketch of the items, nor did any silversmith keep a notebook with examples of designs of jewellery to show to clients. There were some standard pieces that the client could order by name, which would be followed by a discussion about price and whether the item would be kebir or saghir (big or small). Sometimes the client would bring a piece of jewellery as an example for the silversmith to copy. The style of an item ordered differed not only according to the social status and the economic ability of the customers, but also depended upon the traditional jewellery of the region. Thus clothing and jewellery help us in the identification of ethnicity, tribal tradition and regional culture.

The quality of the metals used for jewellery – the amount of silver mixed in an alloy – was determined not only by the price the client was willing to pay, but also by certain legal standards: certain jewellery, such as rings, ankles-rings, earrings, hoops and some bracelets (Figs. 12, 13) as well as a few necklaces, such as the Beduin’s disqs labbeh with Hexagram design and birds decoration (Fig. 14), were required by law to contain a specific percentage of silver in the alloy.

The Branches of Craft and the Methods used by the Silversmiths

The silversmiths did not produce every type of jewellery and not all of them were acquainted with every technique and method of production. There were a few major techniques and there were silversmiths who specialised in working with wire to make granulation and filigree jewellery. ((Filigree and granulation work were well known in the ancient world. We know that 5000 years ago these styles were very popular in Egypt, Syria, Iran and Greece. Heimberg, p. 70,)) Although filigree and granulation were the techniques most used by the silversmiths of Sanaa, they and others in the cities and villages were employed other techniques as well: hammering and casting, piercing, coning, etching, notching and repousse. These were used for many kind of objects, like the mahfadha, the amulet cases, bracelets, necklaces like the labbeh ambroshah, lazem and the ma’anaqah, the jacket of the gunpowder pouch, the nargilah, the water pipes, and the rosewater flasks (Figs. 15-22). ((Oppi: 196-203; Klein-Franke 2005b: 21.))

There were groups of silversmiths who produced the wire, and others who took these wires and created chains of different types, or twisted it, using various techniques to obtain different designs. They also practised the mechanical work of stamping and hammering the wire, called damgha (as in Figs. 9b, 12a, 15, 18). There was a group who formed the wire into granulation dots, into clusters of 5, 7, 9, 11 and more, in floral shapes or geometric designs (as in Figs, 10, 15, 18, 19). Yet a different group produced the silver beads, called duqaq (Fig. 23) usually with the help of the mustaqah, the amboss. (Fig. 24). There were many styles and sizes of beads when used as pendants in necklaces and bracelets they arc called aqrat (Fig, 25). This group also produced the small pieces used for applications, such as the round namnamah or the lam‘ (as in Figs, 6, 12a). They also created motifs that looked like drops, called she’iriyah and berr (in the shape of barley and wheat grains, as in Fig. 1), which symbolised wealth. There were silversmiths who wandered in their region from one weekly market to another and spent the weekend at home, and others who worked in remote villages and returned home only twice or three times a year for the holidays. These two groups did not produce many original objects and primarily repaired old pieces. The urban silversmiths called them malhimim, which means those who “loot” pieces together. ((Brauer: 238; Pundak: 25; Qafih/1961: 231.))

Yemen underwent social and cultural changes due to contact with its occupiers, as well. It was under the Ottoman occupations in the 19th century that the industrialisation of the silversmith craft was introduced. ((Unlike the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, Yemen since embracing the Islamic faith has never been occupied by non-Muslim powers except for a short time when Aden was occupied by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 16th century. When the British occupied Aden (1839-1967), the Sultan of Lahej ruled the area. The south of Yemen was politically separated from the north. Ethiopia has been Yemen’s only link with Christianity, The cultural and political relationships between the two countries existed even before Ethiopia occupied Yemen in the 6th century and date back the legend of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Many silversmiths from Yemen, Aden and Hadhramaut worked in Ethiopia and other countries in East Africa, and the practice continues to this day. Due to the lack of direct Christian influence, it might explain why few Christian symbols were incorporated into Yemenite jewellery. When symbols do appear, like the cross and the fish, they nave magical connotations, such as fertility and wealth, and are not seen as religious symbols. See Raunig: 410; see Garbini: 109; Levi-Nahum: 69-70; Shinar: 39.)) At the beginning of the 20th century, the Turks imported machines to modernise production. With the help of these machines the silversmiths manufactured specific parts of their jewellery. Furthermore, many craftsmen were brought from Turkey to Yemen during the Ottoman occupation. They repaired weapons and also produced jewellery for the Turkish families. ((Ahroni: 60; Zadoc: 33.)) The Yemenite craftsmen who worked in Sanaa also had their hands full producing jewellery for the local population and repairing utensils and weapons for the Turkish and the Yemenite armies.

The Turks opened vocational schools to teach a new generation of silversmiths new techniques. Although the traditional methods of production continued to be employed, Yemenite society was open to learning, adopting and imitating from others, and the silversmiths were able to create new fashions that were both accepted and admired by their customers. Silversmiths came to work in Yemen from countries of the Ottoman Empire and India influenced Yemenite jewellery. A new style of jewellery, like the labbeh tuyur which was designed by the silversmith al-Abyadh (Figs. 26, 27), or the ma ‘naqah which were produced with the filigree and granulation techniques (See Fig. 19). They became fashionable and were adorned (which were still created using the old techniques). Ottoman symbols are novelty in production of jewellery and present in late 19th century and 20th century. Motives like the crescent decorating many filigree pendants (Figs. 28, 29). The skill and design of filigree and granulation work in Yemenite jewellery are still admired today by customers from around the world and are part of Yemen’s cultural heritage. ((Serjeant/1983: 432; Klein-Franke/1982: 86.))

As is the case with fashion, the new reigned supreme and the old was rejected. Which means that fashion is the main cause of the neglect of old techniques and styles of jewellery. This phenomenon resulted in the oblivion of some ancient methods of jewellery production. This development was most notable at the end of the 19th century and accelerated at the beginning of the 20th century. We know of at least four methods that are not being learned by new generations that are threatened to be forgotten: The first is the use of laz, or emaille (Fig. 30), and kahal, or niello (Fig. 31). These were popular techniques in central Yemen. Certain bracelets were produced with these methods. The base of the shiyyash also mada´i, the nargilah, the water pipe, also often had niello decoration. The Qafih family in Sanaa was famous for its neillo and emaille pieces and from the 17th until the middle of the 20th century used to produce bracelets in this style. Names like David Qafih, Se’id Qafih and Yihye Qafih and Se´id Mussa Qafih are engraved, usually in Hebrew, on most of the niello bracelets found today. ((The Qafihs were a well-educated family from Sanaa and Yarim. They occupied many important positions in Yemen and among them there were authors of philosophical ana Judaic essays. According to Yoseph Qafih there is documentation of 13 generations of his family working in niello, See Qafin/1982: 89. As to the orthography of the name, the author spells it in two ways: Qafih and Kafih, See also by Klein-Franke/1982: 87; Feuchtwanger: 98.))

The second method, which was almost abandoned in the middle of the 20th century, is the fabrication of the knitted silver ribbon, called salsa baydhah. Historically, the knitted ribbon was stitched around the oval opening that was in the centre of the ‘antari the traditional woman’s dress (as in Fig. 1). The buttons of the dress were often also braided beads made of silver or gold cord, At the beginning of the 201h century there were still a few families in Sanaa continuing this practice. Today only the silversmith Yoseph ‘Eraqi uses this technique. Yoseph ‘Eraqi (now over 80) is considered one of the leading silversmiths in Israel today; I have been able to document his work continuously for over 30 years.

The third method to note is the crocheting or braiding of 6-10 gold and silver cords, called fatil which was used for the front of the gargush. Another is the production of chains from metal wire called henashiyah (as in Fig. I). ((It is complicated work. The silversmiths put one loop into two loops. These chains bare the name of a snake because they are very elastic and flexible.)) Another silver chain worth mentioning is the salsa sufrah. It is composed of round discs on a metal background that are linked to loops, forming a very handsome design which often decorates the edge of the gargush, the headgear, and is also used as the typical chain of the labbeh tuyur (Fig. 26). The fourth technique is for the production of chains called sals metamman. These were usually gilded. This was very delicate work that required manual skill and endurance as well. The beads were prepared from gold-plated silver or gold tubes of 0.4 or 0,5 diameter. The silversmith cut the tube into pieces 1 cm long and shaped it with eight rhombic sides to form a long bead (not round) that was shiny like a diamond. The sals metamman chain also appears on the front of the gargush (as in Fig. I). ((Qafih: 191; Eilon: 13. For an elaborate description of these techniques see by Muller-Lancet/1976: 26-27.))

The industrialisation of this craft caused an interesting social phenomenon. The monopoly of the silversmiths producing wire with traditional techniques was crushed. The traditional methods required hours of hard physical work, as described by Zifroni: „The silversmith used to loop a long rope around his body, with a ring at either end. Through these rings the silversmith contrived a pincer that held the lump of silver in front of the majareh. This is a flat plate made of special material, thurab, in which holes of different sizes were punched. The mejareh was held between the feet. While he swung with his body back and forth, he pulled the pincer which drew the wire through the mejareh.“ The higher he pulled it the thinner the wire would become. ((Brauer: 242; Zifroni: 145; Qafih 1961: 234; Gingrich: 125.1 would like to thank to the silversmith Shlomo Baussani for providing me information about this subject.))

The young generation had learned from Turkish teachers how to work with machines; a new social class was created. These modern silversmiths started to trade their products; they produced a large amount of wire, beyond what was ordered and actually demanded. They sold the surplus in the market for a lower price. In spite of the fact that the wire produced by the machine was thicker than the wire produced by traditional techniques, the demand for the latter declined, resulting in unemployment among the traditional silversmiths. The owners of the machines rented them out by the hour to other workers. The machines did the work and profits increased quickly. Qafih notes: „In one hour, one could produce with the machine as much wire as in 3-4 days of using the traditional ways“. Unemployment increases in the 1920s, and is exacerbated when the machines break down. For the silversmith there was no way back to the traditional ways of production, they were too old. The elder generation did not transmit its knowledge of tradition to the young. The situation worsened in the 1920s when cheap wire was imported to Yemen via Aden. ((Qafih/1961:231.)) This in turn resulted in the increase of Jewish emigration from Yemen in the 1930s . Imam Yahya took measures to avoid an economic crisis in his country. He re-established the vocational schools to allow young Muslims to learn crafts from the Jews. The Jews, who were skilled artisans, would receive written permission from the Imam to leave Yemen only after they have served in these schools for approximately six months and could prove that they had taught their profession to others.

The historic relationship between Jews, as craftsmen, and Muslims, as owners and cultivators of the land, deteriorated. The Imam’s policy made things worse, as the competition that arose between the Jewish and Muslims craftsmen increased unemployment among the Jews,

The Raw Material

Usually the metal used for jewellery was mostly silver, mixed to an alloy with 10%-20% copper. But the proportions of silver and copper differed according to the type of jewellery being made. For example, the silver content was high in jewellery that was produced using filigree techniques or with granulation. Hence, certain items were rarely produced with a high ratio of silver, like earrings or ankle jewellery. ((See Wensinck: 88- on gold, 215 – on silver.))

Jewellery with a high content of silver was defined as toher, which means pure, and the silversmiths were called yishqe toher. Clients in Sanaa would order jewellery made of high-quality silver. Among the villagers and in rural areas people were less able to afford this quality of silver in jewellery, thus the demand was lower. An alloy with up to 60%-70% silver was called mukhlas (mixed), and when it reached 50%-50% it was called nusfi, half (See Fig. 12b). The very poor ordered jewellery with 25% silver, called rubi‘, meaning quarter. ((Qafih 1961:230.))

The inhabitants of Yemen were not allowed to search for mines to find gold or silver, nor to extract from them if any were discovered. Saphir, who visited Yemen in 1859, noted that anyone who found gold or silver in the mines had to report it immediately to the authorities, or else he would be punished and his belonging confiscated. According to Saphir the Imam used to provide the silversmiths with raw material or gave them coins to be melted. ((Saphir: 129, 116,219.))

When Yemen started exporting coffee in the 17th century, merchants were required to pay the Imam in silver coins. French, British, Japanese and Austrian coins, as well as Indian rupees, were accepted. British coins, because of their high silver quality were very popular, but even more so were the Austrian coins known as the „Maria Theresa Taler“. The MTT coins, which were also circulating in countries like Oman and Ethiopia, were only coveted in Yemen when they bore the date of 1760 or 1780. ((Brisch: Introduction; Klein-Franke/1982: 75,)) The Austrians continued to mint the 1780 MTT even after the Empress died, because of the high demand for these coins and because they were essential for France and Great Britain in their commercial dealings with countries in the Middle and Far East. The British especially needed the coins for their business with Yemen and India. The Yemenites, in turn, used these coins for their trade with China and India.

The export of MTT coins was expanded in the beginning of the 20th century. Yavne’eli, who visited Yemen and Aden in 1910, noted that the import of coins through Aden to Yemen was mostly handled by Yemenite Muslim merchants but there were also a few Jews, who were silversmiths or accredited dealers of jewellery and silver ware in Aden, in the business as well.

In Yemen the MTT was called a riyal. The Yemenites liked these coins and were not inclined to accept coins with dates other than 1760 and 1780, as they saw these dates as iconic and not simply the year of mint. They also used them, other foreign coins and Yemeni riyal in necklaces and as pendants and to decorate women’s headgear, the gargush (Figs. 32, 33. See also Fig. 1). The MTT coins ceased to be recognised as a legal tender in Yemen in 1960. ((The empress Maria Theresa died in 1780. After her death the production of coins with her image and this year had to be stopped. But her son and successor Joseph II allowed coins bearing the year 1780 to be minted, but with slight changes to the image of his mother. These coins would continue to be produced, in his words “As long as there is a need”. During WWII, the British started to produce MTT imitations in India to cover the demand in the Arab world for them. The MTT was also minted in Italy and France. Today the coins are objects for collectors both in the West and the East (Semple: 3-4, Klein-Franke/1982:78.) ))

In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, most jewellery production was done in silver and very rare was gilded ordered. Usually the silversmith produced to order. In the late 19th century of the beginning of the 20th century, urban women preferred their pieces gilded, while pure gold jewellery was made for the royal family. When that occurred, the royal treasury would supply the raw material to the silversmith, who in these cases preferred to work in the palace instead of his workshop. There were many silversmiths who rented a shop in suq al ‘aqil or suq al-mukhlas, in the silversmitilths’ market, or else owned a shop in the Qa‘al Yahood, the Jewish Quarter. A few also had workshops in their homes. The shop owners could not work to full capacity in their spaces. They were traders, busy with buying and selling pieces. The production of jewellery took place in the family’s workshop in the Jewish Quarter.

Jews maintained a very strong presence as artisans in Yemen, Until the middle of the 20th century, approximately 70% of Jewish males earned their living as silversmiths, which means that more than ten thousand families received their income from this craft. The major product of the silversmiths was jewellery and the market in Sanaa was the centre for selling it. Toward the end of the 19th century, in Sanaa alone there were approximately four hundred silversmiths working. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews had 75 shops in the silversmiths‘ market and 70 shops in the Jewish Quarter. ((After the siege of Sanaa in 1905 by Imam Yahya in the war against the Ottomans, the population of Sanaa dropped dramatically. Many people died of hunger. Only part of the population that managed to leave during the siege returned after the Imam won control of the city. Nevertheless, Sanaa remained the center of the jewellery business.)) Customers from all over the country used to come to Sanaa for important jewellery purchases. Sa´da and Ta´izz were also centres for silversmiths who produced objects like the thume, the dagger sheath, hilt of the dagger and the dagger handle, as well as the base of the water-pipe (the nargilah), special trays and the silver sheeting that covered gun-powder bottles. There were in these cities many Muslim silversmiths as well who were experts in producing the water-pipe container, the daggers and their handles. ((See Yavne’eli’s statistics: 13; 14, 17; Glaser: 13; Almaliach: 300; Semach: 81, 107; Van der Meulen: 37; Qafih/1961: 232; Gingrich/Hcifi 124. About dagger production, tools and workshops in Sanaa in the 1970s, see Dostal: 11,70-71, tables 11-15.))

The variety of Yemenite Jewellery

There is still a large collection of jewellery to be found in the market in Sanaa, and outside of Yemen there is a huge amount of jewellery in private hands and in public institutions like museums. It is difficult to measure how much still exists, but as it was in the past jewellery is still today the highlight of Yemenite culture.

How does one value and identify the large amounts of silver jewellery and objects from Yemen? There is more than one way to distinguish a type of jewellery or item of silver, but it is not easy to define a system of analysis or provide an outline, nor to prepare a list of types. There are on the one hand standard forms and on the other, endless variations. Most of the jewellery was produced for women, but the number of silver utensils, ornaments and objects for men that are jewellery-like is not to be underestimated.

There are a few criteria to use when preparing a list of typology or an index. ((A basic ethnographic and historical work on the subject was done by Brauer, Qafih and Klein-Frankc. Also worth noting is the elaborate work of Heimberg who tried to analyse Yemenite jewellery using archaeological methods).)) The jewellery could be arranged in groups according to common denominators: technique or structure, gold, silver or gilded. It could also be classified by pattern, shape, size, symbols or ornamentation. The manner in which jewellery was worn and the where it was worn – directly on the body or fastened onto clothing or belts, worn on the head, face, legs, hands or fingers -could also serve as a set of criteria. One could also divide it into categories according to the intended wearer jewellery for women, men, children, animals, etc. Or according to locale: jewellery for the house or garden. Also worth considering is the purpose of the object. Jewellery were purchased for a specific rite or custom, for holidays, initiations and rites of passage in birth and marriage, etc. Furthermore, one can classify jewellery according to function, such as amulets, the ketab for men and women, and the khureita, the triangle amulet for boys and bridegrooms. Another category to classify jewellery is: bracelets, pendants, rings, earrings, colliers, chains and strings, girdles and belts, and containers for cosmetics, rose-water, tobacco powder or gunpowder.

The style of jewellery differs for Muslims, Bedouin and Jews. Additionally, one can also discuss a conventional design of object as opposed to a special production of it, a traditional as opposed to a novel design, Unfortunately, there is not enough room to elaborate on these subjects in this paper. Furthermore, there were kinds of jewellery that we can define as ethnic, or types which are quintessentially from a certain region, urban or rural. The labbeh shabq (Fig. 34) and labbeh sufuf (Fig. 35) were usually ordered by women from the centre of the country, the labbeh shams was usually ordered in the Sa‘da area (Fig. 36), the labbeh huti was typical for the area north of Sanaa, between ‘Amran and Khamer (Fig. 37). Very often we see in labbeh Shams and labbeh Huti a cloth was attached to its backside. The aim was to protect the cloth as a Shariy`ah from Sa’da said, but the bride should not wear the labbeh shams with cloth on its backside. It was believed that the noise that the hundreds tiny links of the labbe do helds the evil eye away from the bride. ((Compair by Grjasnewitsch: 32.)) A fine filigree work is the labbeh mizamir usually was worn by women in the north and east regions (Fig. 38). Small girls used to wear jewellery of their mother or their grandmother. Small girls also wanted to decorate their dolls with jewellery. Often the mother used to look for pieces from broken jewellery for the doll of her daughter by the silversmith (Fig. 42).

Price and Date of Jewellery

Jewellery made with filigree or granulation techniques was always expensive. For example, the ma‘naqah, the labbeh tuyur or the labbeh shabq were high-priced items, costing the customer at least 40 riyal. The shumeilat bracelets approx. 10 riyal. In the Era of the Imam Yahya was the weekly salary of an average silversmith between 1-2 riyal, and a skilled craftsman who worked independently could earn double that or more. Most of the special orders, costing almost the equivalent of an artisan’s annual salary, were usually part of a dowry.

There were silversmiths who engraved the percentage of silver on the back of the jewellery, in Hebrew or in Arabic characters. Often the silversmith also engraved his name. If a client was unsure about the quality or the price of a certain piece, he could go to the supervisor of the suq al’Aqil, the silversmiths market, suq al fiddah or suq al tohor, and ask him to examine the item he had bought. The supervisor could identify the silversmith according to the engraved name on the jewellery, to help clarify matters. If no name was engraved on the piece and the supervisor could not determine which artisan had produced it, a collective punishment was imposed on every silversmith with a shop in the market. To avoid collective punishment from the supervisor, a regulations pamphlets was compiled for the silversmiths by the head of the Jewish community in Sanaa together with the leading silversmith. The Jewish silversmiths received a list in Hebrew with prices for the most popular items of the day, and the supervisor of suq al’Aqil had the same list in Arabic after it was confirmed by the Imam.

The silversmiths had to abide by these new regulations and prices. Although the price was usually determined by the cost of the material plus 10%-20% for labour, they were given special consideration to raise the price for complicated pieces with designs requiring more time and effort. ((Hubareh: 87,377.)) The silversmiths were also advised to engrave the quality of the piece they sold, like nusfi on the backside of the object (Figs. 39, 40,41, see photo of the silversmith Phinhos ‘Eraqi with his daughter, his stamps of an amulet and on a buckle of a silver belt). Sometimes the price was engraved as well or the name of the owner. This decree was not a totally new phenomenon in the silversmiths‘ market. ((We have record of the silver market from the year 1748, which was expanded upon in 1819, see Serjeant: 179,233.)) It already existed prior to the 19th century, but during the Ottoman rule not all the silversmiths abided by the regulation and the Ottomans did not enforce it. Sleiman Al-Qahree ((I interviewed him in 1982. Throughout almost the entire 19th century distinguished individuals from this family served as head of the Jewish community in Sanaa. His father was the last Hakham Bashi.)) recalls seeing the notebook of the Jewish community, the maswada, in his grandfather’s house in Sanaa, in which the price list for the silversmiths, compiled and ratified by the Imam, was recorded. According to Habshush, also the custom of writing the grade of alloy on the jewellery existed before the 19th century. An ancient method employed to determine the quality of the silver was the use of a black stone. ((Habshush/Goitein: 86; Maryon; 1.)) Regulations was renewed also in 1892 and again in 1920s, requiring everyone to engrave his name on his work in Hebrew letters or in Arabic and if possible also to prepare a stamp. It was a duty of each new supervisor of the silver market to compile a regulations list for the silversmiths.

In my last visit to Yemen in January 2005, a copy of a qanun for the silversmiths’ market from the year 1379 H was handed to me. The qanun was ratified by Emir Hasan, during the period of Imam Ahmad (in the middle of the 20th century), but was copied from a former version dating from the rule of Imam Yahya (1905-1948). It was a pamphlet of regulations and instructions to the silversmiths, compiled together with the leading craftsmen of the suq al ‘Aqil and kept by the supervisor today, Ahmad Rassam. The Rassam family has, since the 19th century, continuously occupied the office of the supervisor of the silver market in old Sanaa. Today, Ahmad Rassam has succeeded his father Hamood Mohammad Rassam, who succeeded his brother Abdallah in this position. Abdallah was nominated to be the sheikh of the suk al fiddah and ‘Abd al ‘Aziz al Hammami was‚Aqil, inspector, of the suq al mukhlas during the rule of Imam Ahmad. In the qanun there are instructions about who was entitled to gild silver jewellery and in which part of the market it was meant to be done. This permission was given by the baladiyah, the authorities, after ascertaining the ability of the silversmith to gild jewellery (§8). Jewellery for woman, like labbeh, or for man, the thume, the dagger sheath, were supposed to be produced with a high silver content (§6). There are also directives regarding method of payment: if a customer ordered gold jewellery he was required to pay with silver coins, namely Saudi, English or Turkish coins. To avoid fraud, every silversmith working in the market was supposed to prepare a stamp with his name or the name of the shop owner (§22, §23). Anyone caught cheating would have his name publicised to discourage customers from purchasing from him. It was prohibited in the suq al mukhlas, to work with brass and copper (§7), as the proper place for this was the suq al halaqah (See Appendix). ((The Rassams are a famous family of silversmiths and prominent traders in antique objects and silver goods. I would like to thank Yahya Rassam for providing me with so much information about jewellery and the regulations of the silver market over the last 7 years, I also owe him many thanks for giving me permission to publish this qanun, which was valid under Imam Ahmad and until the 1970s.))

The melting of old jewellery to obtain raw material for new pieces, which was customary in many Muslim countries, makes it difficult to find old examples from which we could learn about the tradition of jewellery through the ages. There are not many items from the 17th and 18,h century remaining today with a stamp of the ruler on them. There is little amount of jewellery from this period with a silversmith’s name engraved on it, which is a guide posts to determining the silversmith’s family, which in turn assists us in dating the items and helps us to learn about the tradition and the development of the style. When we compare two pairs of bracelets from Sanaa, called qubur; from the 18th century and the 20th century, we see structure and style that was consistent for 250 years. However, in the modem pair of bracelets the silversmith replaced part of the decoration with filigree work instead of sheet-plate with application. ((In the Museum of Völkerkunde in Vienna there is a unique collection of jewellery from Yemen that was purchased by Theodor Graf (He was a member of the delegation to South Yemen headed by David Müller from Vienna). See Janata 1989/90:185-187 and Illustrations: E36, E45, 59, 62; Klein-Franke 1982: 80; also Bothmer: 19. It seems that the style of the qubur bracelets are not unique to Yemen in the Arab world, We find a similar design of bracelet in Morocco, compare by Besancenot: 119.))

The origin and style of Yemenite jewellery

As mentioned above, Yemen throughout most of it history was not a closed country free from outside influences. The contacts between Yemenite silversmiths and merchants from countries such as India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zanzibar, Egypt and Spain, or connections caused by familial and mercantile affairs, brought to Yemen not only raw material but also knowledge of new methods and designs. The Persian influence on Yemen as well as the Rasulids and Ottoman during their rule proved fertile ground for learning and adopting customs from other cultures and experiences.

Famous silversmiths like Badihi and Baussani who were producing jewellery in the first half of the 20th century became a trade mark for quality in the second half of the 20th century. There is no doubt that the style of Indian filigree work influenced Jewish silversmiths and was a source of imitation.

Many scholars agree that the structure and decoration of the jewellery reflect harmony and were famous and highly regarded throughout history; there is no common opinion on the issue of the origin of the styles seen in silver objects and jewellery from Yemen. There is no other Muslim country that has so many types and styles of jewellery, and such a variety of silver jewellery, as Yemen. ((Feest and Janata: 230. The reason for this phenomenon might be that Muslim Yemeni society is not homogeneous. In pre-Islamic Yemen, Jews, Christians and Pagan groups like fire-worshippers had lived in the countiy and left noteworthy stamps on its culture.)) Rathjens sees Yemenite culture as a whole and the crafts in particular as rooted in pre-lslamic Arabia. ((Rathjens: 49a.)) We cannot ignore the assimilation of the Hellenic culture in southern Arabia. Hellenic influences in Yemenite jewellery are present in the zanabil, or basket, and the rosette with five or six leaves. According to Narkiss, certain Yemenite bracelets display Hellenic style and also show the influence of Palmyra. The vine leaves, qubal, which appear on the gargush, (as in Fig.l), Narkiss sees as Iranian and Islamic in style, whereas Brauer determines a clear resemblance in style and technique to Indian jewellery, in particular the filigree work. ((Porter: 229.))

Brauer also found that Yemenite silversmiths used the same tools as their Indian counterparts, such as the mustaqah, the amboss. The chains called henashiya and the sals metaman can be found in ancient Greece. The granulation technique used to decorate jewellery often appeared in Etruscan jewellery. From Rasulids period (13th century) there are many examples of how jewellery from Yemen was highly regarded and in great demand in Egypt. Jewellery and silver goods were an important part in the yearly gift baskets sent from the ruler of Yemen to the Sultan of Egypt. ((See many examples by V. Porter: 228. See also by Narkiss: 9, 15, 18, 29: Brauer: 242; Rathjens: 31, 37; Pundak: 25; Wendell: 96. 103; Besancenot: 119, 157; Klein-Franke: 86; Brisch: 3; Ahroni: 41.))


Jews were known as silversmiths in Arabia as well as in Babylon prior to the rise of Islam. Jewellery using filigree and granulation was produced throughout Yemenite history.

The style and decoration of silver work in Yemen were not based solely on ethnic or family traditions. Influences from other traditions and cultures can be noticed; we find similar designs in jewellery from Persia, India and Ethiopia.

Almost all the Yemenite jewellery and silver work we know today was produced by Jews. Until 1980 we could find still Jewish silversmiths working in the north of Yemen producing jewellery with filigree and granulation using the old techniques, but today there are only a few silversmiths among the Jews living in Yemen who produce jewellery.

The majority of Jews have always been silversmiths in Yemen, but Jews were never the sole silversmiths. There were local Muslim silversmiths making jewellery and other silver goods, and there were foreign silversmiths from Ethiopia, India, Persia, Syria, Egypt and North Africa who lived and worked in Yemen. What is special about the Jewish silversmiths is their work with wire, using ancient techniques such as niello, filigree and granulation for jewellery, and their use of the tablet-weaving method to make hizm, belts, over a period of many hundreds of years.

The modernisation of the production process brought changes to this craft. Younger generations learned new methods with the help of machines, and from foreign craftsmen working in Yemen during the Ottoman occupation. They used new motifs and decorated their jewellery with new symbols, such as crescents and stars.

There are approximately two-dozen Jewish silversmiths still working today making jewellery according to tradition, preparing filigree and granulation with wire. These few remaining artisans work in Yemen, Ethiopia, Oman, New York and Israel.

The work of Yemenite silversmiths, and especially their jewellery, has been extolled and admired by many travellers throughout the ages. For example, Niebuhr, who visited Yemen in 1763, praised the filigree jewellery produced by the Jews of Sanaa.

Until the middle of the 20lh century, jewellery was purchased and used in Yemen mostly for milestone celebrations and for holidays. Since the second half of the 20th century, silver jewellery has declined in popularity, only in part due to the absence of silversmiths. Gold instead of silver became fashionable because is more valuable. Silver jewellery became therefore a target for collectors and a subject of museums.

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