Sparkle in the Sand


Desert Jewels’ Is Dazzling Reflection of North African Melting Pot

Forget “The Jewel of the Nile.” The jewels of North Africa tell greater stories of love and evil than the 1985 Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner adventure flick. With designs intricate yet bulky, the pieces on display in “Desert Jewels: North African Jewelry and Photography from the Xavier Guerrand-Hermès Collection” at the National Museum of African Art reveal how their wearers used these sparkling gems for both celebration and protection.

The 80 pieces of jewelry on display offer a dazzling perspective on North African life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Complementing the jewels are 29 sepia-toned original print photographs that act as a reference point both for how people wore these jewels and how European culture influenced the region.

“It’s really a pleasure to have this particular exhibition,” said Sharon F. Patton, the museum’s outgoing director, noting that North Africa tends to be underrepresented in exhibitions of African art. “It also highlights a genre that tends to be somewhat ob-scure or not as well recognized or displayed,” she added of jewelry in general. “When you come into this exhibition, people will be immediately impressed by the artisanship, the materials, just the very seductive quality of the exhibition.”

Enid Schildkrout — chief curator and director of exhibitions and publications at the Museum for African Art in New York, which organized the display — explained that the idea for it came about after Elsie McCabe, president of his museum, met Xavier Guerrand-Hermès, a director and vice chairman of the famed Hermès luxury brand and a prominent collector who lives in Paris and Morocco.

“When we discovered the photographs in the [Hermès] collection, we thought that this would be a good way to contextualize the jewelry — to show people wearing it, how it relates to textiles and the diversity of people in the region,” said Schildkrout, who went to Paris three times to select items for the show. “I don’t think that the linking of the jewelry and the photography has ever happened before.”

Indeed, the theme of the exhibition is mixing — mixing of metals, stones and cultures. “To me, the interesting thing about this show is that it shows that Africa is part of the rest of the world,” Schildkrout said. “North Africa has influences from Egyptians, Phoenicians, Middle Eastern and Jewish jewelers, many of whom came from Spain after the Inquisition [and] settled in North Africa, especially Morocco.”

And the wide array of items on display reflects these diverse styles — ranging from wedding necklaces, bracelets and earrings to hair ornaments, pendants and fibulae (brooches) used to keep veils in place, all crafted from a variety of materials, including coins; copal, an amber-like resin; semi-precious stones; shells; silk; wool; coral; and of course gold and silver.

Jewelers in rural areas tended to work with silver while those in urban spots used gold, although some pieces, especially two bracelets, incorporate both. As jewelers traveled among villages and countries, they borrowed from and incorporated one an-other’s designs, Schildkrout explained.

“Women literally wore their wealth and collected jewelry as a form of wealth,” Schildkrout said. “It’s their own personal wealth. They could sell it if they needed to. It’s kind of a banking system even though the coins are just used as decoration.”

The photographs — which include portraits, marketplace scenes and landscapes — add context and dimension to the jewelry pieces. All of the photographers were actually Westerners who produced pictures of indigenous people and places for visiting Europeans to take home with them as a type of souvenir.

“It was sort of bringing the exotic into French culture,” said Schildkrout, noting that many North African countries were French colonies at the time. “You look at the photographs, you can see there are portraits of Jewish women, there are Arabs, there are Imazighen [formerly called Berbers], people from sub-Saharan Africa — so you really see this mixture of cultures, history and the connections between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.”

The ornate jewelry is the star of the show, however. Women tended to wear the eye-catching pieces at special occasions such as weddings and baby-naming ceremonies, in addition to using them to promote health or ward off evil spirits.

“A lot of these pieces are amulets,” Schildkrout said, adding that the materials are symbolic, too: Coral, for instance, was believed to strengthen blood, promote fertility and keep children safe.

In fact, some of the pieces have been engraved with religious writing, such as the elaborately carved khamsas — protective hands — one of which is inscribed with words from the Koran while another bears text from the Book of Genesis. “So you have the protection of the print work and you have additional symbolism [such as] the Star of David and coral,” said Bryna Freyer, curator of the exhibition, pointing to a khamsa with the Jewish star on it. “I was very struck by how three-dimensional a number of the pieces are,” Freyer added, looking at a headband with projecting cones.

Many of these headbands, necklaces and other items are heavy and cumbersome, but no more so than corsets or today’s high-heeled shoes, both Freyer and Schildkrout noted.

The pieces are also equally heavy with meaning — a fusion not just of metals and decorative styles but of peoples and philoso-phies, which makes these bejeweled accessories a bedazzling access point for North African culture.

Desert Jewels: North African Jewelry and Photography from the Xavier Guerrand-Hermès Collection through Jan. 11 National Museum of African Art 950 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-4600 or visit

About the Author

Stephanie M. Kanowitz is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.