For thousands of years, North Africa, a region that comprises the modern nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt, has been a crossroads for trade and the transmission of cultural influences from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. This exhibition explores the richly diverse artistic heritage of North Africa through the presentation of a group of extraordinary works of the jeweler’s art collected over the course of three decades by Xavier Guerrand-Hermès, of the Paris-based fashion empire. Including 93 pieces of jewelry complemented by 28 late 19th- and early 20th-century images by photographers who were captivated by the allure of North Africa, Desert Jewels (September 4 – December 5, 2010) features ornate necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings, many of which have not been publicly displayed before this exhibition.
“These objects illuminate the rich history of North African craftsmanship, which has been shaped by the imprint of many different cultural traditions,” said Timothy Rub, the Museum’s George D. Widener Director and CEO. “We are pleased to collaborate with the Museum for African Art to share this exceptional collection, which is remarkable not only for its quality and great beauty, but also for the rich insights it provides into the customs and cultural diversity of North Africa.”
Examples of jewelry created with combinations of silver, coral, amber, coins, and semi-precious stones demonstrate the shared aesthetic heritage of many North African societies, while variations in materials and motifs reflect significant regional differences. Brightly colored necklaces of amazonite beads or large amber beads, such as the Three-Strand Necklace made in Morocco, symbolize wealth, while pendants or enameled beads known as tagguemout are used to encourage the wearer’s fertility. Many of the works in the exhibition indicate regional and group identity, and many were designed to protect the wearer from harm. Hand-shaped amulets, or Khamsa, typically made of silver, are the most popular form of protective jewelry, and are sometimes engraved with prayers and inscriptions in Arabic and Hebrew. The jewelry on view in Desert Jewels also identifies its wearer. Women receive jewelry from their husbands when they marry and wear it as a symbolic expression of social codes and cultural identity. Some of the jewelry on view is unique to a specific geographic location: for example, the bold and graphic spiked silver bracelets known as “bracelets of the horns” (izbian n’iqerroin) adorn Aït Yenni women in Morocco, while Amesluh, bracelets with enamel decorations, are worn by Aït Yenni women in Algeria.
Beginning in the 1860s, European photographers seeking images of foreign locales, set up studios in the major cities of North Africa, photographing women wearing their extraordinary jewels, as well as documenting markets, ancient archaeological sites and landscapes. The popularity of these photographs, which featured images of Arabs, Jews, Imazighen (also known as Berbers) and people from sub-Saharan Africa, reflected Europeans’ growing fascination with the so-called Orient. These photographs came to the attention of Western collectors in the 19th century, when archaeological monuments in the region were being explored, visited, and, in some cases, pillaged. Important photographers of the day including the Scotsman George Washington Wilson, the Neurdine brothers from France, and the Turkish photographer Pascal Sabah, visited the region. Some of their images were used for postcards, while other remained hidden in little-known collections.
I attended the New York Antique Jewelry & Watch Show at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan on Friday, which was the first day of this four-day event. It was my first visit to the show, which is in its fourth year. I was excited to go to the exhibition because of my interest in antique and vintage watches, and must admit that out of the 129 dealers at the show, only ten or twelve had strong watch displays in their booths. The majority had astonishing jewelry for sale. If you are looking for beautiful antique jewelry, this is the show for you, but don’t let the ratio of watches to jewelry lead you to believe there aren’t many watches here. I saw wonderful timepieces of all ages and in a wide range of prices. It was well worth the visit!
My first stop was Royce Estate Buyers in booth 420. President Peter E. Planes II was behind the counter. His display was a collage of watches priced from under $1,000 to $75,000. He grouped his pieces by maker, or function with Patek Phillipe right on top. He expected to be busy over the weekend with retail shoppers. Friday is the day that watch dealers stop by to see what’s available. Many of his customers collect watches to wear, but are aware of the great investment classic watches make.
My next conversation was with Edward Faber of Aaron Faber and Patrizzi & Co Auctioneers in booth 307. This was their second time at the show. They enjoy attending an event like this because the visitors are focused and motivated to buy. This isn’t always the case at their 666 Fifth Avenue location, where there may be more browsing before a purchase is made, Faber reported. In addition to sales, Faber can also offer auction services to customers who want to sell timepieces through Patrizzi Auctioneers. First we spoke about how to classify collectible watches. Antique watches were created before 1935, while vintage watches were made between 1935 and 1985. Anything newer is considered contemporary. Faber recommends that any watch being considered for purchase be triple signed, which is signed on the dial, case and movement. These basics being established, I was shown the ideal New York antique watch. Created by Tiffany, this engine turned timepiece was presented by William Rockefeller, Henry H. Rogers and John G. Moore to their lawyer Eicks with their esteem in 1895. Standard Oil was big business in the 1890’s and these are some of the major players. The watch is in an 18K rose gold case, with a repeater movement, which will strike the time to the minute on gongs when a lever is pressed. Besides their “cool” factor, repeaters are practical if you need to tell time in the dark, or without having to look down at the watch. At $17,000 this watch seemed like a bargain. Given its provenance it seemed like a steal.
My last stop was at Cohen & Pariser Ltd in booth 210. I spoke with Zeisel Cohen about the amazing jewelry she had on display. A large diamond and platinum butterfly brooch by Carvin French drew me in. Priced at one million dollars, it was the most expensive object I touched at the show. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to photograph the piece. Next I was attracted to another brooch, this time a vintage piece by Cartier. A diamond set of leaves, surmounted by a precious stone flower. This piece came with two extra flower heads, so the owner could change the look for different occasions. Priced at $285,000 it was the second most expensive piece I touched at the show.
Many high-end antique shows in New York allow the dealers to create environments for their merchandise. The displays here are much more uniform, with rows of display cases holding their precious offerings. This is practical and secure. It allows visitors to see the most merchandise with ease. It lacks romance, but once you look down into a case and see the object of your dreams, all that is forgotten.
The Antique Jewelry and Watch Show is presented every July in New York. It is produced by GLM, which also presents shows in Miami and Las Vegas.
David Sokosh is the owner of Clinton Hill Clocks in Brooklyn, NY