Creating this illustrated nomadic jewellery collection has been a dream of mine for many, many years. Fact is, I grew up marvelling at a large collection of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) desert jewels curated by my mother.
Women usually have a small jewellery box where they keep their treasured possessions, but not mom. Her eclectic living room is home to an exquisite glass-door cupboard filled with tribal and ethnic necklaces, rings, pendants, anklets, and bracelets from different tribes across the MENA region.
I too have a modest collection of nomadic and tribal jewellery items that I deeply treasure and love to wear to ceremonies and special events. Having travelled to more than 20 countries across four continents, I have managed to curate a small collection of earrings, rings, and other ornaments that bring me much joy to wear and look at.
That’s how the idea behind this illustrated nomadic jewellery artwork came about, to celebrate some of the pieces I have in my jewellery pouch.
I created the illustrations in the main artwork using pen-and-ink on paper. If you look closely, you can see the tooth of the paper in each of the illustrations. I then digitally added analogue watercolour detail to some of the jewellery items where there is agate or amber.
Below, however, you see two separate illustrations in watercolour depicting two Yemeni jewellery items: A tube pendant and a ring. Those were created using Schmincke Horadam professional watercolours on a Moleskine sketchbook.
Artisanal Techniques featured in this Illustrated Nomadic Jewellery Artwork
In this illustrated nomadic jewellery artwork, I chose to focus on antique silver and brass jewellery from Yemen and Jordan in the Middle East, as well as Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt in North Africa. Starting from the bottom left (going anti-clockwise), the illustrations depict the following items:
Yemeni Necklace: This Agate and “silver” necklace is an antique piece from Yemen. Although many refer to Yemeni jewellery as “Yemenite Silver,” the truth is there is a certain percentage of silver mixed into the alloy, which is not purely silver. Nowadays, the value of such creations is determined by the cultural and artisanal significance of these interact pieces, and not by the actual amount of silver present in each one of them.
Enamelled Berber Pendant: The first time I met a Berber woman was in the UK. One of my mom’s university colleagues had his mother over for the holidays and asked me to spend the day with her while he was at work. I was mesmerised by this lady who wore her layered colourful skirts and traditional head veil and cooked delicious food for me. Later on in life, I met a large number of Berber men and women in Algeria while on a trip to an oasis in the southern desert. The Berber, also referred to as the Amazigh, are known for their distinct enamelled jewellery style, often incorporating vibrant colours like orange and light green into their designs.
Tuareg Berber Bracelet: This is the only non-silver item in this illustrated jewellery collection, made by the famed Tuareg tribe that inhibits the Sahara region of North Africa. It is actually made out of brass. I am a long-time admirer of the Tuareg because they are the only Muslim group where men cover their faces instead of women. There are several theories on why this is the case, but the story I have heard is as follows: A long time ago, the Tuareg men fled their camp following a fierce attack by another tribe. However, the women stood up to the attackers, defended their households and won the battle. That’s how the Tuareg men ended up covering their faces – out of a deep sense of shame. This story might seem bizarre to modern-day city-dwellers, but let’s remember that Middle Eastern and North African tribal cultures are heavily entrenched in symbolism and metaphor. The “face” in such cultures is often known as the symbol of dignity. That shouldn’t come as a surprise seeing how even in Western culture the expression “to save face” is also associated with dignity and self-respect.
Yemeni Silver Pendant: This Yemeni capsule pendant is known as “hirz” (meaning a protection amulet, or prayer box). Made from a silver alloy, these pendants were typically part of a woman’s wedding dowry and were made to be hung on a long silk scarf with other items of jewellery.
Bedouin Agate Ring: With a piece of agate in the centre, this ring represents a jewellery style typical of tribal silversmiths located all over the Levant and the Arabian Gulf, including Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Antique Yemeni Silver Ring: Yemeni rings come in different styles. This beautiful Yemeni ring features two main techniques antique Yemeni silversmiths were known for: Clusters of granulation dots adorning most parts of the ring, as well as a twisted chain soldered on the metal as the centre piece.
Antique Moroccan Fibula (Brooch): In Morocco, fibulas have a practical use in addition to fulfilling their purpose as a beautiful piece of jewellery. They are an intrinsic part of the North African Berber costume, created to hold capes and other garments in place. Pinned into the clothing, fibulas – also known as “tizerais” – are made by applying different metalworking techniques and may sometimes come with gemstones or enamelled detail. However, the one common feature they all share is that they are always triangular.
Antique Bedouin Egyptian Bracelet: This silver cuff is handmade by Bedouin silversmiths in the North African country of Egypt. Similar designs can be found across the Red Sea – in Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula.
Jordanian Fish-Shaped Pendant: A traditional symbol of fertility, this Jordanian fish pendant is decorated in the “niello” technique. “Niello” is black metallic alloy of sulfur with silver, copper, or lead. The mixture is used to fill designs that have been engraved on the surface of silver. This technique came to Jordan with Circassian and Armenian immigrants.
Jordanian Bedouin Agate Pendant: The pattern surrounding the centrepiece is made using the filigree technique (also known as “mushabbak” in Arabic). Metal is twisted and soldered to produce the desired pattern. The middle bezel contains a rectangular piece of agate, a common gemstone in Bedouin jewellery creations in the Levant and the Arabia Peninsula.
Yemeni Amber Ring: An amber bead set in a high bezel and held in place with a silver granulated stud makes this ring one of the most iconic Yemeni jewellery designs known to ethnic jewellery collectors today. Similar deigns often substitute amber with a red coral bead. Traditionally, this ring was part of the bride’s dowry gifted to her by the groom on her wedding day.
Algerian Amazigh Cross Pendant: Handmade by Berber artisans in Algeria, this cross pendant is a famous design that can be found in different variations, including with enamelled decorations. The Berber span the Sahara, therefore similar designs can be found in different parts of neighbouring Morocco.
In the future, I plan to illustrate jewellery and ornaments from other travels and parts of the world, so stay tuned!
Illustrated nomadic jewellery and tribal jewels illustrations by illustrator and artist Yaansoon