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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Very interesting discussion. Decadent can also mean corrupt and it may be a description of the introduction of a "foreign" element into jewelry.I appreciate that some items may drop in quality for the introduction of "false' elements, but artisand have introducted "new" material to produce some excellent pieces. I am reminded of the reflectors used in Omani jewelry for example.

Isn't culture a dynamic process where outside influences have almost always amalgamated with and transformed local culture and its manifestations, including its arts and crafts? I think that the judgment over what is collectible is very subjective and time often changes the desirability and even the authenticity of objects.

Or remnants of the remains of  Rommel's technology  in the desert to craft Tuareg pieces...

Chantal, that precise example is exactly what crossed my mind when contributing earlier!

Great minds think alike!

In response to Preethi's question about locally produced items that imitate external fashions...I don't know that these pieces are something that I would collect myself, but I like to keep an open mind about them, and not judge them unworthy of collecting.  I am sure if you wanted to analyze such pieces, one could find many interesting things to say about them.  For my own approach to collecting, I like to always ask why I am collecting things, what story I want to tell, and if I should expand my field of inquiry.  I like to ask new questions and challenge the status quot in a thoughtful manner.

Patti, would love to see your Native American blankets since we do not have enough items from the Americas in our forum, plus I think they will be very beautiful and interesting!  Now that I am thinking about it, I should post some of our Basotho blankets, which have a similar history as trade items, and became an important part of southern African culture.  I will try to do so in the near future.

Thanks again to everyone for their participation!

The smaller of these two brooches is the most recent addition to my collection. The turqoises in both are real, I think the centres are coral glass, the cabochons are glass kundan work coloured to represent semi-precious jewels.

Some would contend that this type of work is shoddy and merely for tourists and cannot be considered as ethnic at all. I would say that it is a distant echo of this:- taken from John Clarks`s book on the jewellery of Tibet and the Himalayas.

The photo shows the reverse of a ceremonial jantar amulet. It dates from the 19th century and is from the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. The semi-precious stones all have symbolic meaning.

The craftsmanship of the two brooches exceeds much that is deemed truly ethnic. Having both I believe I may make a judgement here.

I have a very trusted friend who lived in Nepal for many years. She says that Nepalis wear such jewellery as the brooches when they can afford them. Doesn`t that make them current ethnic wear?

Love the article and the comments.  Yes I studied post grad Museum Studies, Archaeology, History, Engineering Jewellery as well as an Arts Degree (Fine Arts) so I believe I have now found a site that caters to all these interests - I am so grateful to be reading about such interesting subjects accompanied by terrific photos.  Thanks everyone.

Dear Edith,
Many thanks for your so interesting post. I could not agree more with you.
At the beginning of my collection mania, I was looking also for "complete" and "high quality, hence high silver", etc. pieces. However, I quickly realized that a piece which was well worn, sometimes fixed several times during its life and having sometimes a dangle or two missing, is much more rewarding as it tells a story of it's former owner and carries the soul, happy moments but also sorrows of the same. In my opinion, this is the true art of collecting!
With kind regards and best wishes.

I couldnt have put it better Peter. I totally agree with you. This is why base metal ethnographic pieces or reworked materials shouldnt be despised or treated lightly...We respect design jewelry which is a mismatch of various elements , why not give the same respect to more humble ethnographic pieces ?

By the way your own collection is truly splendid as many have pointed out here and for us a delight to watch.

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Created by Cordelia Donohoe Apr 10, 2017 at 4:03pm. Last updated by Cordelia Donohoe Apr 17, 2017.

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