A bracelet from tunisia

Intricacy and doves

This is the first installment in the series ‘Objects in Detail’: what stories does this Tunisian bracelet hold?

Silver bracelet from Tunisia, showing two registers with engraved doves.

What do we see? This is a silver bracelet from Tunisia. Its name is swar, which means ‘bracelet’, and it comes from the region of Médenine and Tatouine. [1] First, let’s look at what we see. It has a beautiful and elaborate decoration: a raised, horizontal band divides the bracelet in two halves, and on each half three large panels are visible. The central panel shows an intricate geometrical pattern, and on the two side panels a sweet dove looks at us. The panels are separated by a small decorated vertical band, and the panels with the doves are bordered by a horizontal band above them. When you look closely at the central band, you will see its decoration is worn. That also goes for the upper rim, which has become thinner and smoother. That tells us that this bracelet has been worn regularly. It would have been part of a bride’s dowry, and by the looks of it, she loved wearing it!

Reading the bracelet: the engraving. Like almost all jewellery, the decoration on this bracelet is not just pretty: it is supposed to do something. The intricate pattern on the central panel is designed to confuse evil. [2] Complexity always is meant to achieve that goal – apparently evil is easily distracted. Give it something shiny and it will focus on that, confront it with complex patterns and it will lose its way and forget it was coming for you. I wrote a little about that in this blog post on knots – these do the same thing. The doves, rendered here in a super cute form, are called asfur, and feature on many pieces of jewellery. They are bringers of good luck and blessings [3] and so this bracelet does two things: it keeps evil at a distance, and attracts good fortune for the wearer.

A collage showing a silver Tunisian bracelet with doves, a photo of a dove and a Tunisian arched window with bright blue shutters. A text box reads 'Intricacy and doves'. The logo of Bedouin Silver is visible.

Look beyond the jewellery Jewellery is meant to be worn, not to be admired as standalone object. It is first and foremost directly related to the body, and placing it there can have the location of engravings making even more sense. If you consider for a moment how this bracelet looks when worn (imagine it on your wrist) the central panel is what stands out. This is what you see first, and that makes it the perfect place to add a first line of defense against any forces that might wish the wearer harm. That same principle works outside of jewellery, too: in the image above you’ll see an intricate design around the window of a Tunisian home. This works in exactly the same way: any and all evil that might want to enter the house will get stuck in the maze of lines. The same principles apply to both jewellery and other things you want to keep safe.

Map of North Africa, showing the distribution of silver bracelets. A text box reads 'Bracelets with two registers and six main panels in North Africa. The logo of Bedouin Silver is visible.

…and even further This bracelet is from Tunisia, but it tells us more about its wider cultural family. And it does that through its shape. The same basic lay-out, a manchet with a central raised band, is found all over North Africa. The design into six panels is also visible, for example, on a pair of bracelets shown above. They were made in Cairo, and worn in Siwa oasis as well as Libya. While the individual details vary and are usually typical to a region, the main lay-out is similar. This in turn places jewellery in a wider cultural perspective. As I wrote earlier, the borders present on the map today are relatively recent. These bracelets reflect the transnational cultural identity of the Amazigh people, and their permanent exchange of ideas, languages, people, and things across the trans-Sahara network of trade routes. [4]

So here you see how a bracelet can share so much, ranging from the individual woman that once wore it to the region of the continent she lived in: jewellery is a historic source!

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[1] Baclouti, N. (no year), Les Bijoux d’argent de Tunisie. Office National de l’Artisanat, p. 180-181, also Gargouri-Sethom, S. 2005, Les Bijoux de Tunisie. Dunes Editions, p. 107. Please note that as this is transcribed from Arabic, you will find the same name spelled as ‘suar’, ‘souar’, ‘suwar’, ‘aswar’ and ‘iswar’ (and probably a few more varieties of this). See more on how that works in this blog post.

[2] A parallel piece with identical geometrical designs can be seen in Gargouri-Sethom 2005, p. 106.

[3] Gargouri-Sethom, S. 1986. Le Bijoux Traditionnel en Tunisie, Edisud, p. 97

[4] Gargouri-Sethom, S. 1994, Les Arts Populaires en Tunisie, Agence Nationale d’Exploitation du Patrimoine, p. 89, mentions how in the south of Tunisia, jewellery closely resembles that of Libya.

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.