Omani jewellery owes a debt to the precious metal that has predominated for centuries but has never been the most sought after – silver. Swati Basu Das examines the evolution of the pieces that never seem to go out of style.
Wearing her traditional dress and her face veiled under a “batoola” (black mask or burqa), a typical Bedouin lady of Oman stands aloft with all her embellishments.
Her ears are studded with hefty silver earrings that are tied with a string on her head to support the weight on either side. She is flaunting her makhnak (silver choker), manthura (silver necklace) and two to three Sumpts (antique Omani necklaces). Her feet are adorned with broad silver anklets, the ends of which are shaped like a snake’s head to apparently ward off evil. D-shaped bracelets and rings complete her look. With all this and more, she might seem a bit tangled and unconventional but she certainly doesn’t look dowdy.
Deeply rooted in the history of Oman, the aesthetics of its traditional silver jewellery have always displayed a vibrant fashion statement.
A traditional Omani woman’s outfit is never complete without the extravagant silver ornaments that bejewel their wearer from head to toe.
And silver accessories are not just confined to the fairer gender, either. Every Omani man can proudly flaunt an intricately-carved Omani Khanjar – a silver accessory that holds a dagger in it and is wrapped by leather belts over his white dishdasha. A symbol of pride and manhood, men fasten the silver Khanjar to their waists during weddings and national ceremonies.
Traditionally silver jewellery was always part of a bride’s dowry and was given to her for her financial security. The tradition continues but with a slight twist. Silver may have been largely replaced by gold yet the love for antique pieces of silver jewellery is still high. Omani women like to preserve these antique pieces and flaunt them when desired.
Even today, Bedouin women in the Sharqiyah region continue to flaunt these silver pieces.
Mohammed Bin Salem, a silversmith based in Al Rustaq, says: “In the past, they not only used these heavy and sturdy silver accessories to adorn themselves during marriages, but these were also exchanged for goods and currencies in times of need.”
‘Sumpt’ or ‘altah’ is a typical antique necklace with a neilloed pendant in the centre and silver spacer beads strung to the sturdy piece of rope with several silver coins attached to it. It’s a popular design favoured by women across the Wahiba region that goes well with embroidered dresses.
Pure silver now extracted from sulphite ore used to be obtained from silver coins and carved into fashionable accessories.
Mohammed says: “The coins fixed to these neckpieces were the tradable Maria Theresa Thaler (a silver bullion coin named after Empress Maria Theresa of Austria). As a source of silver in the Arabian Peninsula, this currency was used in world trade during that period.
“As it is now easily obtained from mines, the designs have evolved with time. The modern designs are trendy and clutter-free unlike the old designs which many modern women find difficult to carry.”
One of the most dominant of the metal industries in Oman, the silverware industry dates back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Omani silver craftsmen of Nizwa and Al Rustaq were masters of their trade and passed their skills down to their descendants.
Now, the current generation’s craftsmen meticulously carve intricate designs on each piece of jewellery they create.
Mohammed says: “However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the silver craftsmen also included a few expelled jewellers from Baghdad. Many of them were based in Muscat and were trained silversmiths.”
Often reflecting an affluent socio-religious symbol, a piece of Omani silver can add glamour to every social occasion while claiming a history dating back several centuries; and some designs are unique.
Melting, hammering and welding the metal to give the jewellery its perfection, silversmiths can painstakingly engrave Holy Scriptures on them or carve them into geometrical or floral shapes.
Though there has been an evolution in the jewellery trade in which gold has a significant share, there’s still a prominent place for silver. It’s not blingy, it exudes an understated elegance, and it continues to offer wearers the chance to display their good taste rather than their affluence.
Based on their designs and the region where they are most popular, these ornaments derive from their phenomenal Arab names.
Manthura – A silver necklace highly cherished by the Bedouin women of Wahiba and northern Oman.
Maknakh – A silver choker commonly known as the pearl of the neck. It is popular among the women of the Al Dakhiliyah region.
Malketeh – A silver necklace predominant in the Dohfar region.
Sumpt – A typical Omani silver necklace worn throughout the region. It has a neilloed pendant and Maria Theresa coins attached to its sturdy rope.
Tok – Designed for young girls and boys, its pattern has a strong Indian influence.
Hanesheh – Popular in the Dhofar region, this Dhofari silver bead necklace have red corals strung to it.