Book Review – Ethnic Jewellery

For those of us who get our sustenance from books about jewelry, Ethnic Jewellery is an excellent feed. Its 170 photos of delectable jewelry, commentaries, and maps quickly wafted this reader into daydreams about the bejeweled tribes that left us this priceless legacy.

Editor John Mack, Senior Keeper at the British Museum, tackled the daunting task of documenting the traditional jewelry of non-European countries. He did this by inviting eight professors, curators, and trailblazer Oppi Untracht to explain the materials, techniques, and themes characteristic of the region in which the jewelry was made.

Ethnic Jewellery by John MackEthnic Jewellery
by John Mack

Paperback, Published by Lund Humphries, Burlington, Vermont, 2002.
81″ x 11″. 120 color photos, 50 black and white, 4 maps, 208 pages

Check out this book here!

About the Book

Mack chose well. The book traces ethnic jewelry from its origins in Africa to the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. Easily digested commentaries answer many provocative questions while raising others. How did the Pre-Columbian jewelers who made the first important jewelry in ancient America create their sophisticated and complex work 3,000 years before Europeans discovered them? Why does some jewelry created in different corners of the world share a certain indefinable similarity?

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Untracht concludes that no matter how far their creators were separated in time and place, they had one thing in common: technology. Technology and design (the marriage of thought to process), are inseparable, and faced with the same problems, craftspeople explore similar avenues in dealing with technical limitations and possibilities presented by any given material. This explains how beaded collars made by the Inuit of Greenland can resemble the necklaces of Oraon women on the other side of the world in Bihar, India. And further, how silver filigree jewelry made in Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Morocco, and India can resemble one another.

Ethnic Jewellery is not just a pretty book.

Most of the jewelry was chosen from the collections of the British Museum, as well as others, but is not a guide to these collections. Rather, it is a chapter-by-chapter continuous dialogue that hops from country to country describing how the pieces were worn, what the relationship of the materials was to the culture, and how the manufacturing techniques survived for centuries.

Ethnic jewelry has a profound significance that goes far beyond adornment. It is many things to many people and a metaphor for language, ritual, art, beliefs, and ideas. Anthropologists see it as a reflection of a culture’s state of mind. Jewelry is movable wealth. Indian village women wear jewelry on every part of the body that can possibly support it. Jewelry acts as both a dowry and the family’s insurance against disasters, political upheaval, and war, as it can quickly be converted into currency. It is also ritual. An Indian bride wears a large thumb ring set with a circular mirror. With eyes cast down, as modesty demands, she can see in it a reflection of her husband’s face, sometimes for the first time.

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Jewelry has great social significance in the Golden Triangle, the meeting points of Thailand, Burma, and Laos. Farmers, fearing the inflationary tendencies of currencies, put their faith in silver. In these societies, it is a woman’s numerous silver ornaments that ascertain the family’s wealth.

The Fali women of northern Came-roon wear large lip-plugs that make them resemble frogs. This pays homage to the female ancestor who was taught the “things of woman” by a frog. These women are responsible for passing on this ancestral wisdom to their daughters, and the impact of their instruction is enhanced both by the attention to the mouth, the source of speech, through personal decoration, and by the more remote allusion to the frog, the original source of the teaching itself. This custom enhanced female attractiveness to the people of the village and also served to protect women from slave traders who found this custom repellant.

Indeed, one culture’s ornaments are another’s magic amulets, which protect against witchcraft and guard good health. Protection for the Berbers meant combining silver with topaz for protection against jaundice, emerald to protect against snake bites, and rubies to protect the heart.

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This book is an inspirational reference for jewelers and collectors, and a travelogue that begins with the oldest and the simplest forms of self-adornment: an oval bone pendant (15,000 years old) and corn stalk, worn through holes in the earlobes, unearthed in Africa. The journey ends with

Native North American Jewelry.

And what a trip it has been. One closes the covers on a global journey, where jewelry is the signpost for lost civilizations, with regret and gratitude to these sometimes anonymous photographers and impassioned collectors, like Untracht. Fuelled by a steady diet of boiled eggs, Untracht spent decades criss crossing India – his “al fresco” living museum – photographing, collecting, and sometimes even rescuing Indian jewelry from the melting pot.

Thanks to conservators like Untracht, ethnic jewelry continues to pass on its message: with inspiration and a few hand tools, jewelers can create anything their imaginations can conceive. Ethnic Jewellery is a declaration of love: for the jewelry, the cultures that inspired it, the techniques that created it, and the artisans that dreamed it.

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By Nina Graci - © Lapidary Journal - 2005
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