In the blog series on jewellery, we will focus on the jewellery traditions of various countries in North Africa and South-West Asia. These jewellery traditions go further back in history than the geographical borders we know today, and, of course, one country may be home to several cultural traditions. Both the historical context and the cultural heritage of a variety of peoples are visible in the jewellery worn, and we hope to introduce this wider scope of adornment and dress to you. In this post, we will look at the long history of jewellery in Oman.
The world of incense and trade
The Sultanate of Oman is located on the southeastern point of the Arab Peninsula. With its 3000 kilometres of coastline, and its proximity to both Africa and India as well as the Mediterranean, this part of the peninsula has always played a prominent role in trade and seafaring. In the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE, shells were used to create various pieces of jewellery: not just beads for necklaces, but also composite bracelets and rings. A beautiful example is a bracelet excavated at Ras al-Hamra, which consists of several pieces of shell that were connected by rope wound through carefully drilled holes in each segment. In the Bronze Age, the land of Magan that was introduced in the earlier blog on jewellery from the Emirates also covered what is now Oman. The inhabitants of Magan traded frankincense as early as 2,000 BCE, as becomes apparent from an incense burner excavated at Ras al-Jinz. Through the trade in incense, copper and diorite, the land of Magan became a trade hub that carried out business with the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Egypt. This international orientation is visible in jewellery and other forms of personal adornment. A hair comb of Indian wood was excavated in Ras al-Jinz, as was a porphyry ring that probably came from Egypt. Cylinder seals found in Ibri testify to the trade with Mesopotamia: a cylinder seal is an engraved bead that would be rolled over wet clay. Each bead was unique and so formed a signature of the owner.
Seafaring and international art forms
The inhabitants of what is now Oman learned very early on to use the seasonal winds to their advantage. Seafarers from Oman travelled eastward to India and Kanton, and westward to East Africa. These international contacts led to an amalgam of cultural influences that is still recognizable in Omani craftsmanship. Around the first century CE, a woman was buried with carnelian beads and a silver bracelet, all materials that had been imported from elsewhere. A hoard of coins, excavated near Sinaw and dating from the 9th century, contained pieces from Spain and Samarkand, showing the immense geographical reach of the trade network. Some of these coins were pierced and were probably meant to be worn as adornment much as this is practised with coins today. Silver- and goldsmiths in the 17th century were from India, while others were Jewish silversmiths from Iraq. Influences from Iran are visible in architecture and the art of woodcarving on doors and chests was inspired by Indian craftsmen. These worked on the island of Zanzibar, which is still famous for its beautiful intricate doors, and through close contacts with Zanzibar in the 19th century, these art forms reached Oman. Many of these international inspirations have found their way to the renowned Omani silver jewellery.
Silver jewellery from Oman
Within Oman, the silver jewellery that the country is famous for is also distinguished by its own regional styles. All of these however have in common that the amount of silver used is very high. Omani jewellery is executed in silver, without the addition of glass or semi-precious stones such as is the case in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. An exception is made for coral beads or ceramic beads that imitate coral, and a few beads of coloured glass that may be present among the dangles of jewellery from the south of the country. Since the 1950s gold is also used in jewellery, first as gold-leaf or a gold wash added to silver items, but later jewellery of gold itself was created as well under influence of the neighbouring UAE. As gold is more expensive, gold jewellery usually is a little smaller than its silver counterparts.
Jewellery made in the north is generally more robust than that of the south, which is more delicate. Further inland, in the centre of the country, we find the Bedouin who in turn have their own style of jewellery. Their jewellery reflects both northern and southern styles, as the Bedouin purchased and commissioned their silver jewellery in towns, such as Sinaw, Sur or the more northern marketplaces of the Dhofar province. One of the remarkable aspects of Omani silversmithing is the attention to detail. Jewellery items are finished off well, with carefully added decorations that match the object in size and placement. Even the smaller amulets that were worn on the large amulet necklaces are carefully set in silver, decorated with floral or geometrical designs.
Cross-cultural influences are visible in the watered-down depiction of the Hindu god Hannuman on the shibgat chin-chain or in the shape of anklets, that reveal the close trade connections with Rajasthan. Other jewellery reveals the long cultural influence and presence of the Baluch in Oman, and in turn, the goldsmithing craft in Sur was practised by craftsmen who had trained in Zanzibar, bring eastern African traditions with them.
The jewellery of Oman continues to inspire younger generations, who create new jewellery styles based on this age-old heritage. Explore this beautiful craft for yourself in the books and weblink listed below!
This blogpost is based on
- Avelyn Forster. Disappearing Treasures of Oman. Archway Books, 2000
- L. Mols and B. Boelens (red), Oman. De Nieuwe Kerk, 2009
- M. Morris and P.Shelton, Oman Adorned. A Portrait in Silver. Apex Publishing, 1997
- www.omanisilver.com shows a wide variety of Omani silver jewellery
*Featured image: A woman from Muscat, photographed in 1901 by A. Fernandez. Jewellery added by Sigrid van Roode