In the 1990s, already very interested in jewelry and in particular Yemenite jewelry, I was a tour leader in Yemen, a stunning country between Saudi Arabia and Oman. My groups were small since there were not enough hotels available and we traveled around in SUVs driven by Ahmed and his family.
We were able to meet the Yemeni people with the help of Ahmed, we could stay in private homes, and even when we had car problems in the middle of the desert very hospitable Bedouin people helped us out with food, shelter, and some car repair.
One day I was walking around without my group and one lady shouted from the 8th floor ‘Hé sadiqi’, ‘hal turid bead alshaay’. He, friend, do you want some tea?
The Yemen houses are made of clay and due to safety problems at all times in history, there are many floors (about 7-8) so that the house can be defended more easily.
The Yemen lady shouted from the roof. And normally there are some corridors on the 6th or 7th floor, from where women can go from one house to another, without going down and up again.
She never have would invite me, when I was with a man, but she was curious and wanted to meet me. I went up and had the adventure of my life.
Normally on the streets, the Yemen women are all covered up with black dresses and headgear. But in the house, they wore an outfit, that I would not dear wearing in the Netherlands. Rather sexy, colorful, and stunning. And that Yemenite jewelry… so beautiful.
We had some tea in the kitchen and she ‘cleaned’ me by putting basil leaves in my clothing and using incense. I smoked like a ‘salad Caprese (Italian salad made of young cheese, tomato, and basil).
In the meanwhile, her friends arrived from the other houses through the corridor and they checked what Western people are wearing. Without any embarrassment, they nearly undressed me to find out. Of course, I was curious about what clothing and Yemenite jewelry they were wearing. And here the fashion show started.
The ladies showed me some special necklace, called ‘labbe’. It is a type of bib necklace, that covers up all bare parts of the neck. Labbe means in Arabic ‘a sunken place beneath the Adam’s apple’.
You need excellent specialized silversmiths to make a piece of Yemenite jewelry like this. It is a kind of filigree necklace, containing hundreds of silver or gold components, that are placed in horizontal rows. And the pattern looks like lace or a spider’s web.
The top row forms the base and the other horizontal rows are strung on a cotton or silk thread, decorated with small pendants or coins. The number of rows can come up to 30 or so. And the gold or silver components were the rows are made of having shapes like triangles, diamonds, rectangles, round beads or rosettes, or squares.
Then the whole necklace is studded with colorful glass, pearls, amber, and coral. And some small round silver granules. The villagers and Bedouins added some coins to them. I’ll tell you that those necklaces were heavy, very heavy.
The labbe necklaces made with the labat sabek technique got popular during the Ottoman (Turkish) conquest of Yemen in the 19th century. And the necklace is popular with Yemenite Bedouin and Muslim ladies. Before this time the traditional labbe was made of elements made with a casting technique and made of solid ornaments.
There is a difference between the labbe of a Muslim or a Yemenite lady. The Muslim labbe lacked a base (a definite top row) and there were motifs beaded in the labbe, like belly-shaped leaves or grains.
Yemenite Jewelry: Bracelets
The traditional Yemeni women wore bracelets, sometimes up to their elbows. That is on festivals and special occasions since you can hardly work with such a load of heavy silver bracelets on your arms.
The bracelets were made with the niello technique, which is very old and you need an experienced silversmith to make a niello bracelet.
Niello is a special processing technique for decorating silver objects, like bracelets. It is an alloy of silver, copper, lead, and Sulphur. The mixture varies per silversmith and the results differ therefore in color, from soft gray to black.
A pattern was cut from the silver in which the niello (the mixture) was then rubbed. Then the object with the niello was placed in an oven, where the mixture melted and adhered to the silver surface.
After grinding and polishing, the niello only remains in the relief projected in front of it and it gets a waxy shine.
There was another method using a mold, where the mixture was poured in and heated and the result was one part of a bracelet. The other part had to be made separately and the two parts were glued together.
Yemenite jewelry: Amulets
The lady who invited me for tea showed me her Yemenite jewelry too and in between were a lot of amulets, made of silver and they looked like hollow cylinders to put something in.
She explained to me that they were used as protection against evil spirits and as a way to give power to the bearer. The meaning of a certain amulet was told by the eldest people of the tribe and the jewel itself was passed on from generation to generation.
The amulets were used for certain occasions. Some of them were worn by elderly people, others specifically by women or babies. As protection through the stages of life.
Jewish children wear hoods, decorated with amulets, like pearls, amber, or coral beads.
Yemenite jewelry: Beads
Yemen is located on the south-western point of the Arab Peninsula, surrounded by Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the Red Sea. On the opposite side of the Red Sea, you will find Africa.
For a long time, Yemen lived on trade. Not a coincidence due to the great location, but also because the land was partly desert, and arid mountains, and agriculture was difficult.
One of the main trade routes ran from Marib, a city on the Red Sea coast, to Wadi (place with water) Beihan. With camels, traders transported incense and spices up north, to Egypt and Palestine or Mesopotamia.
Halfway that specific route was Wadi Jubah, the center of the beads production. The stones were mined in Hajar al-Rayhani (mostly limestone and calcite, but also carnelian and garnet or even diamond) from the 12th century until the first century BC.
Yemenite jewelry style
The silversmiths in the cities made traditional Yemenite jewelry that was refined and sophisticated. In the rural areas and the Bedouin, the Yemenite jewelry was larger and the amount of silver was less.
Besides that, in these areas, ladies liked their Yemenite jewelry added with little bells, that made a little sound. Ideal to chase the bad spirits away.
Several different tribes live in Yemen and the country has been taken over by foreign states too in the past (and even now there is a war going on). The culture of the different tribes and conquers has been incorporated into the Yemenite jewelry. That goes for the techniques to make the jewelry too.
In the inland rural areas, the jewelry has been influenced by the forms and types that are worn in Saudi Arabia. And the Jewish style can be recognized in this jewelry too.
In the eastern part of Yemen, you see the jewelry traditions of India and Oman in the Yemenite jewelry. And on the coast of the Red Sea, the style is more African.
Ethnic Yemenite jewelry
Not only are there differences in the shape or type of jewelry between the different parts of Yemen, but you can also recognize whether the lady wearing her jewelry is Muslim, Jewish, or from the city.
There are differences in ornaments, hanging on the necklaces, for instance. Muslim ladies wear applied decorations, but Bedouin women like large silver ornaments with geometrical designs better.
When you are married and Muslim you have to cover up your head with a scarf. You need a (bejeweled) pin to keep the scarf in one place. If you live in Sana’a (capital of Yemen) and you are Muslim you wear amber beaded jewelry. Although Jewish girls living in the rural areas wear them too.
Living in Sana’a and being Jewish you prefer filigree pieces of jewelry. Labbe necklaces are mostly worn by Jewish ladies. They have a special headdress, called ‘gargush’, that looks like a hoody and the jewels are added to the hoody, like filigree brooches, pendants, and Maria Theresia Thaler coins.
Yemenite jewelry and status
Of course, the Yemenite ladies loved jewelry, just like you and I do. But the Yemenite jewelry, especially the silver jewelry played a very important role, representing the social and economic status of a lady.
The result is that Yemenite ladies wanted as much jewelry as possible and wear as much as possible. But how did they get all that silver beauties?
First of all and one of the most ‘profitable’ ways to get amazing Yemenite jewelry is the system of giving and getting a dowry. The amount of jewelry the bride receives on her wedding day depends on the status of the family of the couple.
In Yemen, without a dowry, there is no marriage. The good thing is that the jewelry becomes the personal property of the bride and can be regarded as a kind of insurance. If she walks away from the marriage she has a way to support herself.
Jewelry is an important factor in the wedding. The amount of silver jewelry she gets as a dowry or as a present can be several kilos. And the more kilo’s come her way, the more successful the marriage will be, according to the legends.
How does the bride looks on her wedding day and then I mean what jewelry will make her a stunning bride?
To start with, she wears several silver Yemenite traditional necklaces, not only around her neck but also around her waist. Then she wears bracelets up to her elbows and on her fingers at least one ring each.
Her head is covered with a Taj Cape, also a kind of Yemenite jewelry, which is decorated with pearls, beads, and antique coins. And last but not least there is a red triangle-shaped amulet to protect her fertility.
You might think this looks like a Christmas tree, but it is not. It is maybe a bit much and very heavy, but it looks stunning.
She wears her jewelry every day of the week if she is Muslim or a Bedouin lady, but if she is Jewish she only can show off her property on festive occasions.
Another way for a girl to get some beautiful Yemenite jewelry is to get older. When she gets the age she can marry she gets a necklace of her family, most of the time a labbe necklace.
A little bit of history
According to Yemeni history, the first jewelers in the country were goldsmiths. Historians think that this tradition goes back to 3000 BC. In the time of Queen Sheba Yemen was already known for its gold jewelry. Jewelry that was used to impress King Salomon, when the two met.
Queen Sheba is a historian or maybe legendary figure, that comes forward in the Bible, and in many other cultures.
The necessary gold for the jewelry was mined somewhere in southern Arabia, where also silver was found. At that time owning such rich mines was important for the economic and financial power of Yemen and its surroundings.
In the South Arabian Himyarite Kingdom, which lasted from 115-525 AD, the Jewish silver- and goldsmiths were making their beautiful jewelry. The royal dynasty adopted Judaism in the 4th century, so the Jewish people were safe under their protection.
Some think that the origin of the Yemenite jewelry is in Medina (Saudi Arabia), where the silversmiths of the Banu Kainuka tribe produced this type of jewelry.
When the Muslims took over power, the Jews lost their protection and were treated very badly. Many died or were sold into slavery. The ones that survived fled to the South, to Yemen.
From the 18th until the mid-20th century Jewish silversmiths were occupied by making the mostly silver ethnic Yemen jewelry. They used techniques like filigree and granulation to perfection.
The Muslim craftsmen seem not to be interested in this kind of work (the Quranic laws did not allow the Muslims to work with silver or gold, or precious metals in general), or they did not have the necessary skills. And it could be interesting for them since a member of the profession of silversmith was regarded as elite, a spiritual elite.
The Jews, that were occupied with making jewelry were most of the time members of rich and educated families. The profession was to be held in high regard. They developed the techniques, improved the techniques, and passed them on to the next generation.
Those techniques to make filigree or granulated jewelry were regarded as the capital of the family and were kept secret. The best silversmiths could be found in the Bawsani and the Badihi families. They even signed their pieces of jewelry.
The Jewish silversmiths could make bracelets, necklaces, earrings for the ladies, and stunning scabbard sheats for the jambiya (traditional dagger) of the men. The more jewelry the women wore, the richer they were and the more important their spouses.
From the late 1800s until the early 1900s some Yemenite silversmiths emigrated to Palestine. And then the operation ‘Magic Carpet’ started in June 1949 until September 1950), when the entire Jewish population that lived in Yemen emigrated to Israel.
The Muslim traders took over the whole silversmithing business and they started to introduce mass-produced gold and silver jewelry into Yemen, killing the traditional way of making jewelry.
Yemenite silver production
Since gold brings misfortune according to the Muslim tradition, silver was very popular, also because the Prophet blessed this precious metal himself, says the Koran. The result was that the Yemenite people needed a lot of silver to make Yemenite jewelry.
The problem was that there were not that many silver mines in the country. The only way to get enough silver supply was to import it, also because recycling old jewelry was not done.
It was done and allowed to alter your jewelry in the newest fashion, and the silversmiths added new silver to the jewel if necessary.
In the middle of the 18th century, the silver objects were made of melted Maria Theresia Thalers, an Austrian coin that was minted from 1741 and had a high silver amount (about 83 percent). Yemenite traders received those coins in exchange for the Mocha coffee.
The Yemen silver jewelry was made of different types of silver. That is silver with different amounts of pure silver (85%-92%), while the rest was copper.
In Sana’a, the capital of Yemen the Jewish silversmiths used high-quality silver. They used melted Maria Theresia Thaler and mixed only a small percentage of copper to make the silver a bit stronger.
For the less fortunate clients in the cities and the Bedouin people the ethnic Yemen jewelry, the silversmiths used 60% or less silver, and the other 40% is copper.
What stands out is that the silversmiths in the city make smaller and more sophisticated jewelry than in the rural areas, where they liked the bigger pieces of jewelry, that produce sounds. They like adding bells to their jewelry to chase the devil and other evil spirits away.
Master the technique to perfection
The Yemenite silversmiths were famous for their use of filigree and granulation, just to call two of their skills in making stunning Yemenite jewelry. And as stated before, the details of those techniques were family secrets.
Filigree is a kind of ornamental work by the gold- or silversmith, using fine gold or silver wire to form delicate traceries. I wrote a blog about this, use the link: https://florencejewelshop.com/silver/
Granulation is a way of decorating jewelry, that needs a lot of craftsmanship. The silver- or goldsmith produces tiny balls of gold or silver (grains) and applies them to a surface in a geometrical way or making linear patterns, or the balls fill a part of a decoration. This technique started around 3000 BC in Western Asia and Egypt.
Normally the granules are made by dropping melted silver into cold water. But in Yemen, the silversmiths used another technique. Here a silver wire was cut into small pieces, that were put on embers in an oven. The heat made the pieces perfectly round.
Although filigree and granulation were the most popular techniques, the silversmiths had more ways or techniques to make stunning Yemenite jewelry.
For instance, with the applique technique, you can recognize the small decorative pieces of precious metal that are placed on another surface. This way you get a bit of depth into the jewelry.
In the Hadramawt, a rural area in the Eastern part of Yemen the technique of casting was popular. You trace a design (mostly a geometrical pattern) with a punch on a silver sheet, and the silver sheet is used to make a piece of jewelry.
One of my favorite techniques to make silver beads is embossing. You use a mold, in a specific form including the decorations. Then you press a piece of a silver sheet into it. By hammering the sheet in the mold you get half of a bead, which you glue together.
Male Yemen jewelry
Men used to wear a ‘jambiya’, which is a dagger with an upwards point. It is a tradition and the jambiya was worn in a beautifully decorated scabbard on a belt.
Ahmed had such a dagger and I cannot say that wearing a weapon like that looked very comfortable. But in Yemen, you are not a man, without a jambiya. Period.
The scabbard was made from wood and covered with leather and sometimes decorated with silver or gilded plates. The dagger had a decorated handle, made of rhino horn and inlaid with silver and sometimes precious stones.
Believe it or not, even the daggers could show what kind of position you had in the Yemenite society and where you came from. The asib jambiya was used by Bedouin people and worn in the middle of their bodies. While the thuma dagger was worn by the higher class on the right side of the body.
This adventure I will never forget. I don’t think that you get such a great view of the traditional silver Yemenite jewelry, as from the lady that invited me to tea. Of course, I had to do some research afterward, since I speak a little Arabic, but not the dialect she mastered. But women together, and using hands and feet… we understood.
Jewelry has nothing to do with words (although you use words to describe how beautiful you are wearing the right jewelry), but with feelings, with a memory of the one that gave you a special piece of jewelry, with feeling confident and loving the way you present yourself.
The most important thing is that you wear the right jewelry, the right jewelry for you, the jewelry that makes you look amazing. If you need some help with choosing, then you are at the right address.
FlorenceJewelshop produced a PDF with so many tips about who can wear what jewelry best. And how to accentuate your best features with the right jewelry. It is free, and you just have to let me know where to send it to.
Florence from FlorenceJewelshop.