Example of Omani design: the Khanjar
Most Omani are Ibadhi Muslims who adhere to a puritan form of Islam. They also underscore their strictness and simplicity in the decoration. Items with a figurative design from nature frequently tend to be of Omani-Baluchi or Persian origin. The metal used in Oman has a very high silver content.
We distinguish the following types of designs used in Omani arts & crafts:
Please note that these designs are not always exclusive to Oman. A useful source to compare Omani designs with ethnic jewellery from other parts of the world is the book series by Anne van Cutsem and published by Skira. The following books are a useful short-list for comparing design styles:
Wellsted in his detailed description of Oman titled Travels in Arabia 1838 Volume 1 page 321 writes: "I have elsewhere had the occasion to observe that there are but few artisans in Oman. At the principal towns blacksmiths manufacture spear-heads, the crooked dagger, called a jambiya, and some rude knives: copper-pots and dishes are also made by another class; but silversmiths are far more numerous than either. Considerable sums are lavished by the females in the purchase of various silver ornaments, and their children are literally burdened with them. I have counted as many as fifteen ear-rings on either side; and their heads, breasts, arms, and ankles, are decorated with the same profusion. There are also many workers in gold, but the articles which they turn out of hand appear not well finished: the metal they use seems of the purest kind"
According to Stuhlmann in "Handwerk und industrie in Ostafrika 1910" are the silver items with filigree work made in Arabia i.e. Oman (e.g. Saidi Khanjars and silver powder-horns) however some local Omani Arab and Indian silversmiths in Zanzibar are involved in making some silver and gold jewellery for Arab and Swahili women)
Emily Ruete writes in her Memoirs of an Arabian Princess 1886 that for making jewellery for the Sultan's court in Zanzibar the Arab goldsmiths have been replaced by goldsmiths of Indian origin. When court ladies ordered jewellery they had guards watching the goldsmiths to make sure they did not work for someone else. An enlargement of the photo in her Memoiren shows us that overall design is clearly Omani, however the jewellery has much more detail and clearly suggests Indian workmanship. An identical golden chain with the "koranic text disks" can be found in the booklet Silver jewellery of Oman by Jehan Rajab page 29, that chain also originated from the Zanzibar court mid 19th century. The golden chain with the small beads is identical to the silver chain with the silver fire-striker in our "matchlock /guns" section and also identical to the chain of the "thorn tweezer" in our "silver utensils" section.
Eastern ladies used to have far more jewellery than their Western counterparts: "When Emily Ruete arrived for the first time in Europe she got problems with the Customs officers as they could not believe that a woman could have such a large quantity of jewellery only for private use. In fact the officers thought it was merchandise to be sold and therefore had to be taxed accordingly. In the end Emily managed to convince them, when she told them she was the sister of the Sultan of Zanzibar. See Letters Home page 408/409 by Emily Ruete (translated from German to English by van Donzel and published by Brill Leiden 1993).
The jewellery and make-up of Omani women was not to the taste of some European men during the 19th century. Richard Burton was a famous explorer, Orientalist and author who lived during the 1850's some time in Zanzibar and explored East Africa. His description of Arab women in his book Zanzibar: City, Island and Coast London 1872 pages 114-115 was far from flattering "The half caste Zanzibar girl enviously eyes the Arab woman, a heap of unwashed cottons on invisible feet, with the Masqat masque exposing only her unrecognizable eyeballs. The former wears a single piece of red silk or chequered cotton. Her frizzly hair is twisted into pigtails; her eyelids are stained black; her eyebrows are lengthened with paint; her ear-rims are riddled with a dozen holes to admit rings, wooden buttons or metal studs, whilst the slit lobes, distended by elastic twists of coloured palm-leaf whose continual expansion prodigiously enlarges the aperture, are fitted with a painted disk, an inch and a half in diameter. If pretty, and therefore wealthy, she wears heavy silver earrings run through the shell of the ear; her thumbs have similar decorations and massive bangles of white metal adorn, like manacles and fetters, her wrists and ancles. One wing of her nose is bored to admit a stud- even the patches of Europe were not more barbarous. "
Youtube film by the Anglo-Omani society of an Interview with Lady Ruth Hawley (author of the first book dedicated to Omani Silver) and Dr Fahmida Suleman.
Oman is a large country: about the size of Great Britain, consequently there will be regional differences in culture and different styles of jewellery. The main regions are: Muscat, Al Batinah (Sohar & Rustaq), Ash Sharqiyyah ( Ibra Sur) , Dhofar (Salalah), Al Buraymi, Adh Dhahirah (Ibri) , Ad Dakhliyyah (Nizwa Bahla, Jebel Akhdar mountain ) Al Wusta and Musandam. These differences are also reflected in differences in dress. Even within the regions there are differences e.g. in the Sharqiyyah we find Bedu and Hadr (town) people with different cultures. In the Muscat area we find Omani but also Lawati (Muttrah) and Baluchi people.
For a beautiful and comprehensive poster of traditional Omani Lady dress see: http://visualoop.com/infographics/traditional-oman-dress-women
For a beautiful and comprehensive poster of traditional Omani Male dress see : http://visualoop.com/infographics/traditional-oman-dress-men
The Baluchi moved a long long time ago to Oman from Baluchistan in modern Pakistan. Baluchi soldiers were also hired by the Sultan of Oman also frequently from the Baluchi enclave Gwadur on the Makran coast. Gwadur was part of the Omani empire, but after many decades of Omani neglect it was sold to Pakistan in 1958. The Persian Gulf pilot of 1924 describes Gwadur as a filthy and very unhealthy place and strongly advices European passengers to remain on board when visiting.
The Lawati also known as Khoja are of Indian origin and the largest of Oman´s three Shia groups, they moved to Oman several centuries ago. For more details on differences in the design of traditional women´s dress of Oman see the book by Julia M. Stehlin-Alzadjali. Also silver from the north is often larger and heavier than jewellery from the south. Also the silver content of jewellery from the south is sometimes lower than that of the North. Spiral shaped designs with leaves (arabesques) are often associated with Nizwa. While a rose design is often associated with the town of Rustaq.
In Omani silver we find design elements that go back thousands of years in Persia, Byzantium and Oman itself. Bronze age earrings have been found in Oman that look very similar to the Omani Ghalamiyat earrings. The book Omani Silver that was written by Lady Ruth Hawley in 1978 pays attention to the link with ancient designs. This was in fact the first book dedicated to describing Omani silver. The strange link between the design of Omani silver and ancient designs from Byzantium deserves some further investigation.
In 1672 the Dutchman Padtbrugge visited Muscat and described the craftsmen in the Muscat souq and the techniques they used. He writes "The trade and crafts are mostly practised by people from Sind and Banians (Hindus). Prisoners from Diu (a Portuguese colony in India) fill the gap left by local craftsmen. One finds however many Arabian rifle-makers and sword-cutters, and also anchor black-smiths and cannonball-blacksmiths, etc." This confirms that craftsmen from other countries have been working for centuries in Oman thereby explaining the influences in design from India and Persia.
Princess Bibi Salme (Emily Ruete) sister of the Sultan of Zanzibar
The purpose / function of Omani silver: Silver jewellery was a key part of the dowry given to the bride by the family of the groom. This jewellery remained in the possession of the bride during her life and would only be sold during financially difficult times. Jewellery was of course also worn to show status. If the bride and or guests were not financially very well to do they could hire expensive pieces of jewellery for the occasion, a typical example being the expensive Manthura necklace. Jewellery on children was often used to protect from the "evil eye" In case a woman was possessed by an evil spirit special protective jewellery was often given during the Zar ceremony. For more details see below. Silver oxide is also very effective against the smell of sweat, all western deodorants make use of silver oxide!
Origin of the silver used in Omani jewellery. The most important source of silver in Omani silver is from melted down old jewellery and from melted down coins e.g. Maria Theresia Thalers. During the 19th and first half of the 20th century the Maria Theresia Thaler was the most important currency in Oman. This also explains the high silver content in Omani Silver. For comparison: In Yemen silver Dutch silver coins were popular (Many Yemeni tradesmen from the Hadramouth were active in the Dutch East Indies) Before 1800 Spanish and Venetian silver coins also played an important role in the trade in Arabia. We have one set of earrings from Oman with ancient Venetian silver coins.
Youtube film of the spectacular Oman exhibition in Amsterdam:
The appreciation of Arab jewellery in the West has varied over time and by country. May 1886 The English paper the Times discusses Emily Ruete´s memoirs and refers to the photo of Emily in the book with her Omani costume and jewellery as "the barbaric glory of her native costume" . From the 1870´s in the rest of Europe and in particular in France the Oriental-ism art movement gained strength and art collectors loved oil paintings with e.g. harems and ladies in oriental costumes and with Oriental jewellery! Some rich western ladies around 1900 had themselves portrayed on oil paintings as Arab women with Arab Jewellery.
The use of Omani jewellery was not limited to Oman, Zanzibar and East Africa. Also in parts of Madagascar and Comoros the jewellery including khanjars were worn during the 19th century. Below we see a photo from around 1870 of Queen Djoumbe Soudi of Moheli island in the Comoros. She was married for some time with the cousin of Sultan Said bin Sultan of Zanzibar. Note the earrings, the piece below her chin, bracelets and rings on her fingers.
Below you find a Youtube film regarding an Omani silver exhibition in the British Museum in 2011: