Silver Speaks: Traditional Jewelry of the Middle East

Silver Speaks
From top: Syrian Kurdish headpiece; Yemeni necklace; necklace from Yemen’s Hadramaut; Omani cuff; Hadrami bracelet; ring with coral-colored glass bead; Syrian niello anklet; Saudi hollow anklet; Yemeni bridal headpiece; bright red face mask or burqah.

November 15, 2007 through March 30, 2008

Marjorie Ransom was a graduate student at Columbia University in 1960 when she bought her first piece of silver jewelry in Damascus, Syria – a large silver cuff. 

Nine years later, while living with her husband David in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the couple developed an interest in silver jewelry that went beyond simple objects to wear. They found themselves collecting and displaying the pieces on the walls of their home to the delight of their Arab and American visitors.

“Everywhere I went I was fascinated by its beauty and its enormous range of styles and designs,” Ransom recalls. “It opened an immediate and powerful window into the life and culture of the Middle East. My husband, David, and I began to seek it out in souks and silver shops wherever we went in the region.”

The couple, who both went on to become career U.S. diplomats in the Middle East, developed a strong desire to investigate the origins of their discoveries and understand the women who wore them and the men who made them. In the process, they became amateur preservationists dedicated to sharing their knowledge.

Now, selections from the Ransoms’ 1,000-piece collection are revealing their secrets to audiences through an exhibition entitled Silver Speaks: Traditional Jewelry of the Middle East. The exhibition makes its first Midwestern stop at the Arab American National Museum November 15, 2007 through March 30, 2008 in the Lower Level Gallery.

Silver Speaks
Saudi bracelets and anklets.
Marjorie Ransom, who has lectured widely and spent a year in Yemen researching their traditional silver jewelry, will speak about her collection during a November 15 opening reception at the AANM. The event, which begins at 5:30 p.m. with refreshments and live entertainment in the Museum’s Community Courtyard, features a demonstration by silversmith Kamal Rubaih of the World Friend shop in the silver souk of Old Sana’a, Yemen, and a live showing of silver and costumes by young women of Dearborn.

With their shimmering intricacy and fine craftsmanship, the silver necklaces, bracelets, earrings and other pieces in the exhibition are far more than personal decoration. An Arab woman’s jewelry told you who she was, which tribe and region she belonged to, and her social and marital status. 

Once an integral part of Arab women’s lives, indigenous silver jewelry traditions in the Middle East have fallen away in recent decades due to social, economic and cultural change. Domestic and imported gold jewelry is now the style, rather than a valued custom.  

 Silver Speaks
Coral and silver necklace from Yemen.
Originally organized and shown in 2002-03 by The Bead Museum in Washington, D.C., the Silver Speaks exhibition has been shown in only two New York State galleries. It comes to the Arab American National Museum with the support of The Wallace Foundation.






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