Amazigh (Berber) jewelry

Amazigh ear pendants, early 20th century (Anti-Atlas Region, Morocco), silver alloy, enamel, glass, and carnelian, 34.4 x 20.3 x 2.9 cm (Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re in the Museum of African Art here in Washington, D.C., and we’re looking at jewelry from North Africa.

Dr. Peri Klemm: [0:13] These are ear pendants that would have been worn in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco by either Jewish or Berber women.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] Instead of being clamped on the ear, or worn through the ear like a pierced earring, these were suspended from the top of the head by the hook that we see at the top, with that carnelian stone in it, and then draped on either side of the head. We’re only seeing one element of what would have been an elaborate display of jewelry.

Dr. Klemm: [0:41] These are so elaborately created and so heavy, they couldn’t possibly be inserted into the ear. They’d just hang down as a woman’s walking.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] Someone who is wealthy would have worn these.

Dr. Klemm: [0:52] This would have been someone of high status who was also married. This suggests her dowry, her wealth. The Berber and Jewish populations controlled the trade of silver and silver caravans throughout North Africa.

[1:04] Silver was their main currency, but rather than fashioning it into blocks, smiths created these beautiful ornaments that women wore. In a sense, she’s wearing wealth and showing her status through this ornament.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] We see intricate filigree work, we see decorative enamel work, and in the center, we see a floral pattern with some blue cloisonné or stone.

Dr. Klemm: [1:25] Down at the bottom are conical bell shapes that made music as she walked.

Dr. Harris: [1:31] There were between 200,000 and 300,000 Jewish women in Morocco. If this was in fact made for a Jewish woman, it was certainly made by a Jewish artisan. Today, there are only about 2,000 or 3,000 Jews in Morocco.

Dr. Klemm: [1:44] We do still have Jewish smith shops in the major cities like Fez in Morocco, but today most women no longer wear pieces made with silver, amber, and carnelian. In fact, gold is more popular and fashionable.

[1:55] Many of these older pieces worn by their mothers or their grandmothers are sold, either to tourists or to museums, and they end up in collections like this one. These objects communicated a whole host of things about the woman who wore them, and she didn’t wear them in isolation.

[2:09] If they were worn by a Jewish woman, it would have gone along with something like this.

Dr. Harris: [2:13] This is an amazing headdress, formed of so many different types of materials. We’ve got silver, we’ve got stone, we’ve got enamel, we’ve got delicate filigree work, we’ve got long braided fibers hanging down.

Dr. Klemm: [2:27] We even have cattle or goat hair fringing the top of that silver headband.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] This triangular shape at the top elongated a woman’s forehead. It must have been fabulously beautiful to wear.

Dr. Klemm: [2:38] The way in which this dyed black fiber is braided tricks one into thinking that that is actually her hair, but in fact her hair is intended to be concealed, as a married Jewish woman.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] Look at that dense filigree work in that band that would have been across her forehead, and these discs that dangle, like the conical shape in the ear pendants. We can also imagine this jingling as the woman walked.

[3:02] It’s wonderful to see these pieces here in the Museum of African Art, because so often when we think about African art, we think about the art of sub-Saharan Africa instead of the art of the entire continent, which would also include Algeria and Morocco and Egypt.

Dr. Klemm: [3:18] In addition, we tend to see wooden objects. Most collections are comprised of objects from West and Central Africa.

[3:24] These are silver objects. They’re personal objects. While they were crafted by a male smith, they would have been worn by a northern African woman as part of her ensemble, of part of her body art.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] There’s so much fine detail and such fine workmanship that there’s a real showing off of the skill of the artisan who made these.

[3:44] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris, "Amazigh (Berber) jewelry," in Smarthistory, April 28, 2022, accessed May 27, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/amazigh-berber-jewelry/.