Conjure an image of an Arabian Souq, and one thinks of maze-like alleys lined with shops selling incense, spices and gleaming displays of gold and silver jewellery. Now, many of the gold shops here may be modern and luxurious, but jewellery still plays an important part in society, just as it has for thousands of years.
Traditionally in the region, finely worked silver jewellery was worn by Bedouin travellers. It was both a mobile and decorative way of transporting their wealth from place to place. A Bedouin woman effectively carried her fortune with her in the form of elaborate head-pieces, veils, necklaces, rings, belts, anklets, cuffs and bracelets, and it was hers to dispose of as she wished. It was customary for a woman to be given jewellery upon marriage and to celebrate the birth of each child.
Designs traditionally incorporated coins, tiny silver bells, and precious stones such as turquoise, amber, pearls and coral from the coast. Just as in the West, it was believed certain gemstones and designs were lucky, and would protect the wearer. The beautiful flowing forms of written Arabic lend themselves to elegant jewellery designs. Pieces are also often influenced by traditional geometric patterns, and even in the work of contemporary jewellers one sees familiar motifs such as the hand of Fatima, or intricate calligraphic tughras. Antique jewellery is also a fascinating document of the past. Because of the nature of Bedouin life, the oldest jewellery incorporated techniques and designs from cultures across the trade routes.
Over time, tastes have changed, and exquisite sets of gold jewellery are now favoured for a bride's wedding trousseau, so the shops in the malls tend to favour these designs. More than simple decoration, fine jewellery shows wealth, status and family pride. Each piece of gold jewellery sold is hallmarked by the government, to ensure its purity, and local jewellers are highly skilled, able to produce bespoke pieces using gold, silver, and gemstones, including the pearls which play such an important part in local history. There is something for everyone, and European, Arabic and Indian designs are sold side by side. Often the pieces are sold according to weight and carat based on the day's price for gold, rather than the beauty of the design, although hand made items command higher prices.
Personally, I'm gradually collecting a few pieces of old silver jewellery while we are here. Throughout history, this jewellery has been about more than decoration. These beautiful, intricate pieces honoured the geographic and tribal links of the woman who wore them, and reflected her economic and social status. They are historical documents in their own right, and a portable way to take a little of the past of our home for now with us when we leave.