Silver Treasures in the Land of Sheba
Hearing the Queen of Sheba, one conjures the notion of a majestic South Arabian woman of the Sabaean people, who traveled by camel caravan to Jerusalem bearing spices, frankincense and myrrh, jewels and gold, on a mission to test King Solomon’s wisdom. Her people lived in an area the Romans named Arabia Felix or “Happy Arabia” in Latin, so named for its riches. One of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East, this land today is called Yemen.
Yemen is known for its ancient trade routes and textiles but her craftsmen also produced some of the world’s most complex, carved silver jewelry that was prized by woman for its beauty, conferring of personal identity, financial security and attributed protective value. On Thursday, November 6, former United States Foreign Service Officer Marjorie Ransom invited guests to a gathering in her elegantly appointed Washington, DC home to share the news of her new book Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba. Earlier, in July, no less than the Library of Congress hosted an event for the book launch in the Middle East Reading Room which is not open to the public, making it a doubly special event for Ransom to talk about her explorations among the Yemeni silversmiths.
Ransom lived and worked in the Middle East for over three decades and spent many months in Yemen following her calling to research, collect and document the traditional jewelry making. Reflecting her personal historical survey of Yemen from the north to the south, her book describes the particular jewelry style prevalent to each geographic area, discerning which pieces would typically be worn determined by the women’s status: unmarried, bride or married. She could only have so thoroughly discovered this treasure trove of photographic and oral history narratives by being on-the-ground, with interpreters, guides and Yemeni friends, traversing the country, sensitively interviewing the remaining craftsmen and visiting with the women who still wear their jewelry with pride. Her book preserves this disappearing cultural tradition for the historical record.
At her home event, oud music played as friends who shared her interest and work experience in the Middle East delighted in Arabic hors d’oeuvres and animated conversation about their travels, books they were reading and inevitably lamenting current news. The main attraction was the large dining room table laden with ornate silver jewelry displayed for sale by her Yemeni collector friend and antique dealer Kamal Rubaih. There was much admiring, trying on of heavy collars, filigreed necklaces, exquisite cuffs, bangles, earrings hair ornaments, belts and purses. Also on view for sale were a variety of amulets and their boxes meant to offer protection and blessings of fertility as well as some individual beads.
Yemen has a rich history of silver craft which is largely eclipsed from view but has been discovered by a few intrepid explorers and is particularly well celebrated in Ransom’s new book. Beyond its striking black cover which sets off the silver jewelry so well, the book offers both historical context, comprehensive descriptions of the jewelry and over 300 photographs; it is both useful and definitive for the serious researcher and fascinating for the curious collector and ethnic jewelry fan. Jewelry designers and ethnographers will surely consult this book for inspiration from the fantastically intricate designs and the weaving of mixed media including silver, coins, cockles, leather and threads. Complementing the silver, designs often include Yemeni agates, carnelians (heated agates) and amber. Coral and red glass are also used as well as ceramic and plastic colored beads.
For centuries, countless competing tribes, ruling elites and foreign countries held dominion over Yemen and its people followed as many different religions, with multi-god and Christian faith traditions also present. Then, beginning in the 6th century, a Himyarite king named Dhu Nuwas declared Judaism the State Religion. One hundred years later, Islam followed in 630 AD and became the predominant faith but Jewish and Muslim communities co-existed. Over many years, the Jewish community thrived and became known for their talent in silver craft. They initiated many of the techniques still currently in use throughout Northern Africa, Central Asia, India, and the Middle East. Jewelry from Yemen is similar in style to that of ancient Sumeria, including its cylindrical amulet cases for containing religious verses and magical incantations, the ornately crafted globe beads, and the generous inclusion of silver coins. Yemeni-Jewish craftsmen produced beautiful silver pieces characterized by elaborate granulation and filigree decoration for Muslim and Jew alike. Gradually though, with the spread of Islam, the number of Jewish families remaining in Yemen declined and in the 1940’s most emigrated to Israel. A formal mass transfer organized by Israel in 1949-1950 was fancifully called Operation Magic Carpet and fewer emigrated informally to the United States.
When asked whether such jewelry is still being made, Ransom said yes, that “The craft endures today. Young silversmiths in Sana’a and Taiz are working in the old techniques creating fine silver jewelry pieces by hand.” With regret, she reported that realistically, “Making jewelry using traditional techniques is very labor intensive. The items are too expensive to appeal to a broad audience and there are no tourists. It is also difficult to get jewelry out of Yemen for the artists to flourish. Some other young craftsmen are making inexpensive silver jewelry using modern machines. Most of the craftsmen I interviewed for my book were in their sixties or older and their sons had given up working in jewelry because they could not attract customers. Women’s taste in Yemen and around the world now favors gold, so that lowers market demand.”
Ransom never expected to become a jewelry aficionado. She and her husband served in many Middle East posts affording her exposure to the many regional crafts. She first saw Yemeni jewelry in 1966, receiving a necklace as a gift from a friend and then when she and her husband were posted there from 1975-1978, she was fascinated by the fine work and found herself wondering about the story behind the jewelry and the women who wore it. Since then, she has embarked on countless expeditions to meet the craftsman families and was always greeted with warm hospitality and hours of storytelling about the jewelry’s role in Yemeni society and ritual. Along the way her interest evolved into more rigorous research as she acquired and curated a now-renowned Yemeni silver collection, distinguishing her among the world’s leading experts in the Yemeni silver tradition.
Marjorie Ransom’s book is available on Amazon.com and further descriptions of her collection may be found in a 2012 issue of Aramco magazine.