Women silversmiths from Oman

Making their mark

Oman is home to a long history of silversmithing. And like in so many parts of the world, traditional jewellery started to be worn less from the 1960s and 70s onwards. Much of it was sold off, and replaced with gold jewellery. As a result, knowledge of the craft and workmanship in creating traditional jewellery dwindled as well. The exposition ‘Making their Mark: women silversmiths from Oman’ in the British Museum highlights a revival in traditional silversmithing. And not any revival: this silversmithing is done by women, researched by women, and presented by women.

Silver bracelet made by Tuful Ramadan, in the exhibition 'Making their Mark: women silversmiths from Oman' in the British Museum

Silversmithing: voices of creators

Central to the exhibition is the work of three female silversmiths. It is not often we get the opportunity to hear from craftspeople themselves, as most research focuses on the wearers. But what of the people who created and made the jewellery? The research project has carried out numerous interviews over several years. The three silversmiths in this exhibition represent three generations: Tuful Ramadan was born in 1949, and sadly passed away in 2021, Mahfouda al-Balushi was born in 1965, and Fatma al-Najjar is from 1992.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Fatma in person at the museum, where she shared her personal experiences and journey in becoming the gifted jewellery designer she is today. While she is still on the path of becoming a silversmith herself, she already designs jewellery with her own brand RAHINA for wearers of today, drawing inspiration from the long history of Omani silver jewellery.

The exhibition shows a pair of earrings and a belt she designed, and when we met, she was wearing a pair of gorgeous, playful silver earrings that jingled along as we made our way through the museum.

For Tuful, picking up the skills of silversmithing was partly family business (she married into a family of silversmithing), and partly out of necessity: after her husband died when she was in her twenties, creating and selling silver jewellery formed her income.

Her passion for the craft resulted in her being awarded several prizes, and the quote printed on the wall reveals how she regarded herself as a woman silversmith; ‘Accuracy is in a woman’s nature. A man also works well, but women are known for making delicate objects’. And indeed, the bracelet in the exhibition is made of dainty, delicate, and incredibly precise chainwork: I loved it.

Mahfouda creates silver attributes and accessories for men. She learned the craft from her father, and designed the most beautiful leather belts for silver daggers (khanjar) that Omani men wear on festive occasions. All of these are made by hand, as are the sheaths and handles of the daggers themselves.

You can hear and see the personal histories of these women, too: the exhibition includes videos of all three silversmiths. A mannequin dressed in dress and silver jewellery from Dhofar provides reference to traditional jewellery all three silversmiths draw their inspiration from; I included an image at the bottom of this post, so keep on reading!

An in-depth look at jewellery: the power of science

The exhibition does more than just showcase jewellery, though. What I found particularly exciting is the scientific research that was part and parcel of this project from the start. Fatma and I were shown around the museum labs by Dr. Aude Mongiatti, where we could see with our own eyes which huge research potential beyond the stylistic and art historian scientific analyses have to offer (and you know I’m always up for looking at jewellery in context!).

Silver earrings created by Fatma al Najjar of RAHINA jewellery, Oman.

Looking at jewellery through a microscope reveals the variety in techniques applied by the silversmiths, and looking beyond the surface of an object tells us more about the composition of the silver and the way it has been handled. With three generations of silversmiths and the museum’s own collection, this opens up exciting new avenues to see how techniques were passed on, developed and adapted over the course of time.

For me personally, this was an eye-opener in terms of research questions I did not even know I had. Of course I am aware of scientific research methods in general, but when it comes to practical uses my technical savvy goes as far as successfully operating a microwave. Having an actual scientist show me in great detail which possibilities exist, and how these may increase our understanding of objects, was mind-blowing and incredibly inspiring!

Making their mark: jewellery research

The exhibition itself is relatively small, but do not be fooled by the size of the room alone. There is a world of generational knowledge, scientific research and heritage in here. The project itself is also run by women, who each bring their own expertise to the table.

Dr. Aude Mongiatti is a scientist, Moza Sulaiman al-Wardi is in charge of the Oman Across Ages Museum in Oman, Marcia Stegath Dorr has decades of experience in Omani heritage, and Dr. Fahmida Suleman is a specialist in ethnography and Islamic art and culture. Together with the silversmiths, they set out to approach the silver heritage of Oman from all avenues: from the molecular to the emotional, from the economic to the meaningful. And in doing so, I believe they set a new standard for ethnographic jewellery research.

This project is a brilliant crossover between museum jewellery and living jewellery, between scholars, scientists and creators, between institutions and communities, between the past and the future. It illustrates how jewellery is never static and may hold different meanings for different people over time.

The title ‘Making their mark’ may be more aptly chosen than the makers realized, and I hope to see many more of collaborations like these in the future!

Detail of Dhofari silver jewellery from Oman.

Where to find more on the exhibition ‘Making their mark: women silversmiths from Oman’?

The exhibition is on show in the British Museum until December 17, 2023. More information can be found on the museum’s website here.

An online talk on this project is available on the YouTube-channel of the British-Omani Society here.

I visited the exhibition on November 2 on my own initiative, without being required to write this blog: I just love sharing something good when I see it!

Where can I find more on traditional jewellery from Southwest Asia and North Africa?

More on traditional jewellery from Southwest Asia and North Africa? Browse the jewellery blog here!

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Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.