jewellery and identity

What’s in a name?

One of the most complex issues when working with jewellery is how to put the origin of a piece into words. Looking at a hallmark is only the beginning. The hallmark systems, which operate on a national level, can inadvertently be counterproductive in attributing jewellery: when a piece is hallmarked in one particular country, this does not mean that the type is exclusive to that country. There is much more to the identity of a jewellery piece: who made it, who wore it, where, and when.

Which name to use: the issues with countries

In most jewellery books, you will find pieces of jewellery assigned to a particular country. That seems rather straightforward, but is in reality quite complicated. Most of the borders delineating countries we know today have come into existence after World War II and the various wars for independence. These borders are disputed in several cases, too.

So especially when a jewellery piece is a little older, the country as we know it today may have had a different geographical range, may not have existed at all when the piece was made or may have been colonized after the piece was made.

Modern state boundaries also cut through age-old systems of exchange and cultural space: they have been conceived on the drawing board during colonial times. That is reflected in their straight and angular lines, disregarding natural boundaries such as rivers or mountain ranges that defined cultural spheres of contact.

Identities: cities, towns and tribes

Arbitrary though they may be, modern borders have a compartmentalizing effect: national identity does not always take transnational identities into account. Sometimes, this even leads to disputes about whether a piece of jewellery is, for example, Moroccan or Algerian, Algerian or Tunisian.. But that distinction is not always relevant, because a piece of jewellery can be both: the particular Amazigh tribe that makes use of it, may very well live in more than one country.

So, when referring to countries, it is always important to remain aware that these are countries as they are now – and that countries are not equal to cultures. That is different for cities and towns. These may be older than the country they are currently located in. Cities and towns also cater to a larger clientele.

An example are the bracelets shown above: these were made in Cairo, and worn in Sinai, southern Palestine and southern Jordan. The Bedouin that purchased these bracelets inhabited this large area, which now consists of three different countries. So do we call it an Egyptian bracelet, because it was made there? A Palestinian bracelet, because it was worn there? Do we call it Israeli or Jordanian, even though the bracelet was made before these countries themselves existed? Or is it a Bedouin bracelet, because these are the people of whose culture this was part?

Identities: religion and movement

Another aspect of identification is often religion. This is where it gets even more complicated, especially in the sphere of creation. Many master craftsmen of jewellery were Jewish, but does that make a piece they created Jewish, too? Craftsmen catered to clientele from all religions, throughout history.

An example are the two Coptic silversmiths living in Bahariyya Oasis, Egypt, who created jewellery for an almost exclusively Muslim clientele. Are their pieces Christian? And what to think of itinerant craftsmen, who traveled through a, sometimes vast, region to create jewellery for a variety of patrons? Is their nationality, tribal affiliation or religion even relevant to the identity of the pieces they make?

Jewellery and cultural identity

I believe the key is to understand how jewellery is very closely linked to identity. Now ‘identity’ is of course a notoriously fluid concept, interpreted differently depending on context.

But the picture that emerges is that the backbone of identity often is the locality or tribe a person belongs to, with religion coming in second and expressed in significant, but relatively small differences in dress and adornment, and modern nations following only after that. So, when determining where a piece is from, I feel that all these factors should be taken into account instead of just pinpointing an origin in a country as we know it today.

There is the question of where it was created and by whom, who would have been wearing it and in which geographical range, and where it eventually was sold. A piece can be simultaneously Yemeni and Saudi when it’s part of a community living on either side of a modern border. It can be Jewish and Islamic when created by a Jewish craftsman for a Muslim patron. All of these aspects form part of the identity of the piece, and together they paint a much more vivid picture of the people who wore these multi-dimensional pieces.

Find out more about the changes over time in jewellery and identity in the e-course on History of Jewellery!

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.