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 Monday

Thanks Everyone for the comments and photos!  It is really great to see more examples of this interesting piece being worn!

Comment by Ethnic Embellishments on Monday

I have always though that the "holga" resembles the ancient Egyptian "shen" symbol.

Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on Saturday

The one i was talking about from Sugier's book.

It does seem the "Holga" does not fasten or tighten the belt proper, but is attached to the belt more like a waist adornment hanging, so not used in a practical way, only on the aesthetic level!

The arabic word does indeed, as i mentionned before, not mention a practical use and only suggests the geometric shape of the jewel itself.

The additional chains, dangles, plaques and pendants (as in the larger ones from the Sfax countryside) seems to be a later fashionable addition.

The valuable and interesting picture provided by Jose is definetely very old and could be showing the original earlier shape before it was further jeweled (i have a simple example like this one and it is incredibely patinated and smooth)!

Comment by Jose M. Pery on Friday

I was screening the web I have found a picture ("triage") of a Tunisian couple where the woman seems to be wearing a "holga". The picture is not very good but I believe that is quite plausible. Although it does not allow much detail about how it is tied the place, quite close to the waist, makes sense to me if it was meant to keep the lower front part of the robe out of the way during the daily chores or while working of the fields. It looks like that purpose would not be so well accomplished by keeping it hanging loose.

Comment by Edith D on November 1, 2017 at 9:46

Thanks for this Alaa eddine!  I agree that although I have read Eudel's work with caution, I still find it enormously useful!  In terms of the holga, I simply found it interesting that I could not find a picture of it being used the way it is exhibited by IMJ, which suggests to me that perhaps it is not correct.  I should try to write to their curators and ask them how they concluded it should be worn this way.  It is very possible that they have based it on some first hand source that is not widely available. 

It just all goes back to our discussion of never making any assumptions just because someone else has decided it is thus...this includes the origins of something, or the way in which something is used.  All fodder for constant consideration.  Many thanks again for your thoughts on these matters!

Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on October 31, 2017 at 11:12

Your last interrogation is something i can not answer rather than on two minor point:

Etimologically the local name of these is "HOLGA" from classical arabic "HALAQA" which literally means everything that is round on itself or RING in the broadest understanding

The only picture reference i could found and you know of rather shows a loose belt buckle and more of belt weight or ornament. cf. Sugier's book

Other than that, reconstitution in museums are always picky and made under a "cahier des charges" or bill of specifications decided by people who want to strictly reproduce what they saw in pictures or red in descriptions!

Better just stick to old labels, good lights and reference pictures and clear texts, although i must say the ethnography department of the Israel museum is pretty good albeit expectedely following its own biased bill of "cahier des charges"

Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on October 31, 2017 at 11:02

At least i could read the side vertical sentences which translates to "Allah is the protector", it does not fit with the regular Quran verses one always sees on the classical old Tunisian ones!

It is definetely a very early amulet and more researches actually yielded more interrogations:

Valérie Gonzalez who wrote the very precious "Emaux d'al Andalus et du maghreb" suggests that the amulet was found on the Alhambra grounds by Marià FORTUNY the famous spanish orientalist who coincidentally was a good friend to BARON DAVILLIER who in return wrote the biography of the artist! The BARON was the person at the origin of the Bequest to the Louvre as mentionned earlier!

The whole story sounds legit and acceptable but FORTUNY sojourned in Northern Morocco in the city of Tetuan in particular for a couple periods where he acquired his orientalist touch. Tetuan may be with Jerba island some of the very last places where Andalucian styles and techniques were preserved the longest.....

That is not saying much but that is just loads of coincidences. Still the amulet is "tentatiously" Andalucian!

your picture of buckles which could actualy be horse strappings fittings are also problematic. the only certainty is their old provenance, mostly in old public provincial Spanish collections and i think one in a London museum, that reduces the probability of a fraud but still the very one at the left of the picture is very interesting as it highlights two motifs present until the 19th century in North African jewels: namely the top and bottom "friezes" with consecutive red enameled crosses and the central floral cartouche!

I have a very old enameled khamsa from possibly Jerba island (still unsure) with loads of this crosses in the cloisonne. Gonzalez book show a couple example of Byzantine jewels with this decoration, therefore it could be an old christian oriented motif which survived in North Africa by way of: first the Wisigith in Spain, Then the Omeyyad, The nasrids, then in tunisia by the andalucian expells!!! truly fantastic

The central cartouche is an exact copy of a motif found in Northern moroccan gold tube shaped gold beads very similar to the tunisian "qannuta" beads from jerba.

Bottom line, it could be actually difficult or even impossible to make a strict difference between the late Andalucian production and that from North Africa until well in the 19th century when the french swarmed the place Worth Noting that in the richly established urban centers with a strong "bourgeoisie" backed with a centralized power both political and cultural, later ottoman styles and tastes could not compete and had a harsh time to establish themselves, that is the case for coastal tunisia and North West morocco! (possibly only in Algeria, which due to its border status of the ottoman empire was more impregnated when the local urban elite was simply wiped out in favour of milatry, mercenaries and even pirates!)

Some guesses and brainstorming!

As for Eudel, a simple look at his bibliography speaks tons about the personality. half a journalist, half a collector and half fame-seeker. His first book "Orfevrerie Algerienne Tunisienne" was actually commissionned by the administration and is actually a gem of information on a long lost world, Eudel himself longs for the "Beautiful models of time gone" and it seems he was fascinated by the very rich urban jewels of the DEYS, ottoman inspired rulers where he undoubtedely found an echo of the defunct french monarchy. So his first state funded odissey did led him some years later to write something more systematical "a dictionary"!!!! his approach is definetely lacking artistry and was concluded by the very state-minded approach of a "civil servant" reflecting on methods to increase tax revenues and repress frauds mixed with a hint of nostalgia while he expressed his worries that indigenous ladies are at risk of having their taste changed by new imported modern models. A paroxystic confession of a mix between a colonial toy soldier and a French monarchist.

Still his work is INVALUABLE for us. However as you susected he did not speak arabic and was helped on the ground for years by local translator and interpreter Mohammed Bouzar from Meliana!

Back then, authors had access to precious books and bibliography and were also more systematic and methodological in their tasks, which undoubtedely participated in the relative quality of Eudel's books nomatter!

Comment by Chantal on October 31, 2017 at 9:21

Hi EDith, for what it's worth I like Paul Eudel's writing if only because he seemed very conscientious and he had a history of dealing with jewels and it seems that he made for his lack of Arabic by consulting the locals for the Arabic terms...and more than anything else  (to my knowledge) he is the only fairly extensive  source for this period...which is a positive!

As for the LOuvre piece it would be OK  (IMO) if the white woollen stuff is a belt ....lets see what Alaa says!

Comment by Edith D on October 31, 2017 at 7:44

Thanks for the image...A wonderful amulet!  Yes, it is not always easy to tell where these things are from.  It is difficult to read the writing on the Louvre piece, but it appears to be in Arabic (although that still does not help establish its geographical origin.)

Here is another that claims to be Medieval Andalusian.  These are supposedly belt buckles from the 14th-15th century.

The enamel work and curved shapes looks pretty similar.  What do you think about Paul Eudel's writings?  My impression is that he did not speak Arabic, but at least he mentions some of these other influences in the jewelry including the Andalusian connection.

I would also say that you are correct to treat museum labels with a healthy bit of skepticism.  Sometimes they are incorrect, and curators are always updating and correcting the information for their collections.  Here is one that I suspect is incorrect from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  What do you think about this?  Based upon our previous conversations, I am not sure that this item would have been worn in this manner....

Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on October 30, 2017 at 11:16

Similarities are so striking in the example i posted that i had doubted it could date back to the suggested era and place.

This amulet belongs to the louvre since it was gifted by the BARON DAVILLIER in 1885.... few years after tunisia was occupied by france.

So there are chances that it is actually a very old Tunisian amulet sold to the collector as an older Andalucian artefact. I ll let you comment on this detail, however the upper enameled motif just under the bail has clearly have a very old medieval profile!!

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