Ethnic Jewels

An appreciation of ethnic jewellery and adornment

Recently, it has come to my attention that some in our community think that only objects of the purest silver and gold are worth collecting.  People collect for many different reasons, and there is certainly room for the "Jewelry as Fine Art" approach.  I myself enjoy the pleasures of a piece of fine silver work done by a master craftsman.  My own collection, however, has nothing to do with fine art.  My academic training in history, anthropology and archaeology has influenced my collection to reflect these interests.   The most valuable finds for archaeologists are not those of solid gold…rather the most edifying are those humble objects used by ordinary people.  These may include earthen pottery, cooking utensils, farm implements, and yes, jewelry made from common materials such a bone, glass and base metals.


Collecting ethnic jewelry is for me an exploration of culture and history.  History may be written down by the ruling class, but it is lived by ordinary people.  I would not suggest that I have no interest in the ruling class.  I am the product, however, of more recent academic philosophy.  This philosophy believes that studying the ruling class without also studying the base population will result in an incomplete picture.  This is why I love  finding well-worn jewelry made from humble materials,  Low grade silver, base metals, glass and bits of plastic are fine with me as long as the piece is well-used and culturally authentic.


This also leads me to the question of "museum pieces."  I often see this phrase touted about by antiques dealers.  What does this mean?  I know what the antiques dealer means when he says it…"incredibly rare, made from the most precious materials and fabulously expensive."  I will disclose here that I have taken classes in museum studies and I have occasionally consulted for museums as a professional.  Do you know what a museum curator means when he says "museum piece"?,,,,"Didactic…something that will convey a story and educate the public."  In fact, many museum objects would command very modest prices on the open market.  Yes, there are some very rare and expensive pieces of jewelry in both the Bir and Starr collections.  There are also a number of pieces that are not rare and are still available to collectors at modest prices.  It was not the goal of these collections to include only the fabulously rare…rather it was to tell a story and create the context in which these objects were used.


I myself have tried to include pieces in my collection that tell something about the larger cultural context.  One of my favorite pieces is a temple ornament from southern Tunisia that is made only from plastic and scented paste beads.  The materials are very humble, but the workmanship is very detailed, and the piece is unique.  The woman who made it was of modest means and lived in a remote village, but the act of making this piece spoke volumes about her life and her place in society.  I do not wish to ignore her story in favor of collecting only objects owned by the wealthy.

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I agree wholeheartedly with all that you say. Treasures are not all silver, gold and precious jewels. It's the story behind them and their makers that makes them unique. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Edith and in the language of today .... Big Like!

Wonderful discussion, Edith, you already know my opinions on this topic, Adornment made from string and plastic can be just as wonderful to the creator and wearer as the most precious metals. And then there is always the iconic bottle cap headdress girl!.

And here is a lady closer to my own age enjoying her adornment

Thanks to you both, and Patti, what wonderful photos!!!  Where are they from???  I love the bottle caps...reminds me of some of the decorations I found in southern Africa.

Once, when living in Ghana, I needed to go to the local village shops still with hair in pink plastic rollers. I was deemed very smart and glamourous! We don`t all share the same aesthetic. Isn`t that good?

I can totally relate to this discussion. Some of my favorite treasures are hair ornaments made with zippers. Seeing the beauty and potential in all things is a mark of artistic vision.

Hi, I know that the older lady with the wristwatch headdress is from Ethiopia. I will have to find out about the young girl. I wanted to add that I love the primary characteristic of the term museum piece -- a teaching/learning piece, excellent to know that.

This Statement is great, I love it and I share it. Why should we only love and collect items made of Gold and silver? I really love pieces made of Wood, Shells, leather, clays, simple metals, if the whole is made beautifully and attracts me. However, it must be said that we also have to be careful with our natural resources such as corals and ivory. I am totally  against commerce with ivory. If Business with ivory continues, the slaughter will never end until our elephants are extinct. It can only end if ivory is not sold anymore and no  Commercial wins can be made.


I would like to challenge you all with one more thing.  Do we only value the best of a particular jewelry form, or can we see the intrinsic value of an imitation that was utilized in the same cultural context as the original???

When I lived in Yemen, our guard gave my daughter an old bracelet and necklace that had belonged to his mother.  His family had been poor at the time, and gradually as they increased their wealth, the jewelry was given to the children to play with.  Since his children had grown up, he one day brought it to our house so she could use it for dress up.  It is made from tin, copper and iron and the beads are all plastic.  I thought about throwing it out, but then I began to think about the history of these pieces and couldn't do it.  Here is a photo of the set with all its warts....

Kudos to you, Edith, for such a poignant discussion that is SO VERY TRUE!  Having a background in anthropology and archaeology myself, I wholeheartedly agree.  I personally love shell ornamentation, intricately carved and rich in symbolism and history.  It's not just about the material but the aesthetics for the person who created and/ or wore the adornment.

Edith I completely agree with you for the value of ethnic jewelry is also in the genie to decorate with what is in your financial means it is art naif!

My Rnglish is so poor ,I give it in French;

Edith je suis completement d accord avec vous, la valeur des bijoux ethniques est aussi dans le genie de se decorer avec ce qui se trouve dans vos moyens financiers c est de l art naif !

I like that Statement very much!  Very well said, Toya.

Toya said:

I can totally relate to this discussion. Some of my favorite treasures are hair ornaments made with zippers. Seeing the beauty and potential in all things is a mark of artistic vision.

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