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Ethnic and Tribal Jewelry

The majority of pieces on the market for the tribal or fusion belly dance enthusiast or collector of ethnic jewelry is from Afghanistan or Northwest Pakistan. Is it old? Is it new? Is it recycled? Is it reproduction? 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 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.

Turkmen Design Large Cuff Bracelet

Our model Nigel is wearing a reproduction Turkmen design large cuff bracelet with simulated turquoise inserts. Large but lightweight, this cuff bracelet allows Nigel to lay down some serious riffs on his guitar.

Turkmen design cuff bracelet
Photo © 2013 Nigel Benjamin, all rights reserved.

Our lovely model, Rocio, is wearing several pieces of vintage Kuchi tribal jewelry from her private collection in Madrid, Spain. Afghan tribal jewelry is very trendy and versatile for everyday wear, not just for tribal belly dance.

Kazakh-Style Earrings

Kazakh-style earrings

Protective amulets and prayer scrolls are very popular adornments in Pashtun and Central Asian cultures. Mixed in with these items you might be lucky to get some antique silver Baluchi bi-conical 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.

Vintage Turkmen Design Necklace

Vintage Kuchi pendant necklace

Much of the tribal 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.

Vintage Kuchi Necklace

Vintage Kuchi necklace

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.

Vintage Kuchi Necklace with Fish Motif

Vintage Kuchi necklace

Deer, horses, fish and avian images are very popular motifs in Pashtun and Central Asian cultures. There is a legend about a deer running into the tent of a Pashtun nomad for sanctuary as she was being hunted by a Khan. The nomad would not give her up and the Khan tossed him a bag of gold and went on his way. Horses are an integral part of Turkmen and Tajik culture. The fish is a woman's symbol in many tribal cultures. And Islam encourages keeping of birds as pets. Many Pashtun pendants are embellished with dangles; the magical tinkling sound is believed to keep away the evil eye.

Kazakhi Earrings

Kazakhi Earrings

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