Ethnic Jewels

An appreciation of ethnic jewellery and adornment

When I lived in Tunisia, I frequented Monsieur Moncef Helioui's shop on many occassions.  He and his brother have a dusty, yet wonderful little shop on the Rue Jamiya Zetouna in the old Medina.  They are descendants of Ahmed Helioui, a well known 20th century silver smith in Tunis.

I have a number of items in my collection that were purchased from the Freres Helioui.  Shortly before I left Tunisia, Monsieur Moncef told me about a book that he was writing.  I was very delighted to come across his completed publications a few weeks ago! 

There are two small volumes.  The first is entitled "La fibule berber, la Melia et le voeu de la paix" (trans. "The Berber Fibule, the Melia and the vow of peace")  The second volume is entitled "Les Tabarquins et le corail rouge de Tunisie" (trans. The Tabarkans and the red Coral of Tunisia")   Here are the covers.

They are both written in French, but if you are not a native speaker, they are not too difficult.  I have been reading them and my French is not very good.  I just use Google Translate anytime I come across a work I do not know.

If you are looking for a comprehensive catalogue of Tunisian jewelry, this is not the book you should seek (I recommend Sethom's book for that.)  However, Monsieur Helioui provides some new and useful information, and he attempts to provide a larger context for the jewelry.  He discusses, for example, the importance of the Melia (the checked cloth traditionally worn by many village women). The fibule is designed specifically to fasten this cloth, and without it the jewelry would probably be very different.

M. Helioui also offers a brief discussion of the money that was used both to decorate the jewelry and as a source for the metal which was melted to fabricate the jewelry.

My biggest surprise was his assertion that the use of red coral dates mainly from the 16th century, and he provides some historic background for this statement.  He states that mostly this was collected off the coast of Tabarka.  I would have thought that the use of the coral was ancient, but it is true that after an online review of the Bardo's Punic jewelry, l did not see much archaeological evidence of coral.  There seemed to be a preference for making beads from glass during the Punic era.

Another thing I liked about this book is his description of the different types of selsela chain fabrication methods.  I think this is useful, and not done enough in other books on Tunisian jewelry.

I completely respect Monsieur Helioui's extensive knowledge of Tunisian jewelry.   There is only one thing I will take issue with, and that is his characterization of everything as "Berber. "  Yes, there is Berber influence, but there is also Punic, Roman and Fatimid to name a few more of the many cultural influences that have shaped Tunisian jewelry.  Nevertheless, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in something beyond the mere cataloguing approach to Tunisian jewelry.

The Shop of Freres Helioui in the Old Medina

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Comment by Edith D on October 7, 2017 at 9:36

You are most welcome! It is actually not the book I would recommend as an introduction to the subject.  However, if you are interested in Tunisian jewelry, M. Helioui has added some important information to the conversation.  His analysis of the coral in particular is something that I have not seen before.  I would love to know if anyone else knows anything about the source and history of red coral in North African jewelry.

Comment by Thelma on October 7, 2017 at 9:20

Thanks very much for this useful information, Edith. I have only limited knowledge of Tunisian jewellery but this set sounds as if it would be a good addition to my collection of books.

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