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GILDED SILVER MEDALLIONS 36, Taif, Saudi Arabia, purchased by the late David Ransom in 1969. Smaller medallion is 18.5 centimeters in diameter. Instead of stones, these are set with glass beads.
Arabic Silver Jewelry

The Allure of the Traditional




Together we felt an urge to learn, document and preserve an artform that we both found unique and beautiful.

In 1960, when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, I obtained a study grant to visit the Middle East for the first time. This area subsequently became my late husband’s and my area of professional specialization, over our thirty-year careers as United States diplomats. Toward the end of my initial visit, I traveled to Damascus, where I shopped for mementos for my family at a store in the Hamadiya Bazaar of the old city. Among the enormous array of Middle Eastern handicrafts on display, a wonderful bracelet caught my eye. It was pewter in color, not shiny, and made the clanking sound of a camel caravan. It held for me all the mystery and allure of the east that I was just getting to know, and its bulky size and geometric motif made it very pleasing to the eye. I had to have it. This bracelet became my personal signature piece of jewelry for many years to come, and the first in a collection that over the years has grown to more than nineteen hundred pieces.

Five years after that introduction to the Middle East, I married David Ransom, whom I had met in a summer Arabic class at Princeton University. As we embarked on our tandem diplomatic careers, Arab silver jewelry became a joint pursuit. In the late 1960s, while posted in Jeddah, we learned that old family pieces were melted to make new jewelry for brides. We began asking for the baskets of discarded jewelry in silversmiths’ shops destined for their melting pots and found lovely old Saudi pieces ready for destruction. Together we felt an urge to learn, document and preserve an artform that we both found unique and beautiful. Some of the jewelry pieces were coarsely made, clearly done by amateurs or beginners. Others were more artistically assembled, such as a necklace that we rescued from a Jeddah melting pot. David not only shared my enthusiasm but over the years, on his own, found some of our best pieces, such as the gilded silver medallions also shown here.






Marjorie Ransom
Marjorie Ransom has conducted research in Yemen and written a forthcoming book on her findings, Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba: Yemeni Regional Jewelry. While a United States diplomat in several Arab countries, Ransom collected more than eighteen hundred pieces of Middle Eastern silver jewelry. Her exhibit “Silver Speaks: Traditional Jewelry of the Middle East” showed at the Bead Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as other locations in New York and Michigan. Additional pieces were shown in 2006-2007 at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, and in 2008 at the Jerusalem Fund in Washington, D.C., in “Female Adornment from Bilad al-Sham (Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria).”





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