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Monday, 11 August 2008 17:13

Guide to Afghan Tribal Jewelry

The majority of jewelry on the market for the tribal or fusion belly dance enthusiast is Afghan jewelry. Is it old? Is it new? Is it recycled? Is it reproduction? Why does some of it say "Made in Pakistan"? Why does Afghan jewelry contain so much Lapis Lazuli and Carnelian?

Afghanistan has been at war almost constantly since 1979 and decades of devastation created the need for many to sell their personal jewelry and traditional clothing. Struggling under two sets of UN sanctions in the early 21st century necessitated a lot of cross-border indirect trade. That is why many pieces of Afghan jewelry and textiles have "Made in Pakistan" stickers on them. Importers are required to label each item in English with the country of origin when bringing these goods into the U.S. The items are shipped to the US and elsewhere through the bazaars in Pakistan since there was formerly no direct trade with Afghanistan. There were formerly two main border crossings but now there are about twenty places to trade. Some of this is changing now due to joint ventures and initiatives like Afghan Friend International, Inc. where more direct trade is possible. Pakistan had set up a vast number of refugee camps to house the millions of displaced Afghanis, by far the world's largest refugee population. There they live in Peshawar and other Northwest Frontier towns making new items for export and recycling old ones. There were so many Afghanis in Peshawar that a city of the section is nicknamed Afghan Town. There is an entire generation of Afghanis who have never set foot inside Afghanistan.

Mixed in with these items you might be lucky to get some antique silver Baluchi biconical hair beads, for example. Or you might stumble upon spiral metalwork chokers or anklets from Waziristan, one of the seven Tribal Agencies straddling the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is not much tribal jewelry coming out of Waziristan now due to recent hostilities in the region. Much of the truly older Afghan jewelry is in the hands of private collectors now, although some dealers continue to offer vintage or antique items.

Most tribal belly dance jewelry on the market today is a mix of the old and the new. A reputable dealer will disclose to the best of his or her knowledge. Ask before you buy if the description is unclear. Displaced Afghanis make belts, for example, by using remnants of vintage embroidered fabric and lining them with new cotton and attaching reproduction pendants and old coins. Some belts are made entirely of reproduction pendants now, newly made copies of traditional nomad designs. The Afghan warlords needed money and flooded the market in the 1980s and 1990s with large quantities of Lapis Lazuli, Kunzite, Emeralds, and Rubies driving down the price of these precious and semi-precious gemstones. When the Soviets bombed the Panjshir valley extensively, they uncovered vast amounts of Emeralds and other gemstones. Lapis is mined in Badakshan using traditional methods. The Lapis used in contemporary tribal jewelry is commercial quality, not gem grade. There are five grades of Lapis, the best being sent directly to the watch industry (note the classic blue face of the Rolex Oyster Perpetual timepiece). Sometimes Lapis is reconstituted or powdered down for making small items such as inexpensive peasant rings and earrings. Carnelian (red agate) is another gemstone that is plentiful and continues to be mined in the region.

Turkmen tribes from the north of Afghanistan use Carnelian extensively in their jewelry. Antique and vintage Turkmen jewelry often incorporates a gold wash technique. Silver was fire-gilt with gold by master craftsman. Gold was mined in some areas near the Carnelian. Most of the best Turkmen pieces would never have been stamped or signed by the artist because they were private commissions for someone's wife. Teke Turkmen (a sub-tribe) would always use either Carnelian stones or red colored glass. Teke would have never used Lapis or Malachite or other colors of glass. You will see Lapis and green glass cabochons in only in contemporary reproduction, or copies of traditional Turkmen pieces. Deer and avian images are very popular motifs in Pashtun and Central Asian cultures.

Carved Carnelian & Sterling Silver Pendant

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