Marjorie Ransom lived twice in Yemen, in 1966 and 1975, as a United States diplomat in a thirty-year career that took her to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and Egypt. She and David Ransom, her late husband, were the first Arabic-speaking tandem couple in the Foreign Service. Together they put together a collection of traditional Arab jewelry and costumes.
Ransom obtained two research grants from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies which enabled her to spend time in Yemen, from 2004 to 2009, to interview silversmiths, silver dealers, and their families about the role of traditional Yemen silver jewelry and costumes.
AUC Press published Ransom’s Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba: Yemeni Regional Jewelry in hardcover to excellent reviews and the paperback was published in September 2023. She is working on a second book devoted to silversmiths.
In this interview, Ransom shares her encounters with Yemenis, revealing the rich and unique Yemeni culture.
Your first sojourn in Yemen lasted for one year. How did you find it?
Marjorie Ransom: David and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary in Yemen. There was a civil war in the country restricting our travel, but we found our first piece of Yemeni jewelry in the market in Taiz, where we lived upon arrival. Although the material is 50-60% silver, which we call low silver, or ma’adin, the workmanship is lovely. I still wear it with pleasure. A peddler brought our next piece to our back door in our second Yemeni abode, this time in Sanaa. It had compressed amber beads and a large silver crescent-shaped pendant.
From The driver of the head of the U.S. Mission, we acquired an old pair of silver upper arm bracelets which were old and heavy. With that purchase, I began documenting. The driver, called Babouri, told us he got them from his grandmother who had acquired them for her wedding dowry. He was about sixty years old and that made the bracelets about one hundred years old. The Yemeni Jewish workmanship was fine, as you can see in the photo. He called them anklets, but I learned in later years that anklets were almost always hinged so the woman could put them on.
Pieces such as these were worn on the upper arm so the woman could do heavy work without interference from her jewelry. That year in Yemen had its difficulties but we fell in love with the beauty of the country and the extraordinary generosity and kindness of the people. And our romance with unique jewelry began.
How were you able to write in such detail about the jewelry of Yemen? Did you study silversmithing?
Marjorie Ransom: I spoke Arabic and learned what I know mostly from personal interviews. My husband David and I learned Arabic together in two summer courses at Princeton University and Harvard, but when we studied literary Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute in Beirut 1968-9 we gained a technique of study that gave us a new level of fluency. Our Yemeni accents amused our classmates but enabled us to move ahead quickly.
Where and how did you start learning about the craft?
Marjorie Ransom: We lived in Jeddah in 1969-71. There was a sizeable silver market there in the old city and we went together on weekends to look at the jewelry and talk to the silversmiths. The woman owned the jewelry she got as part of the groom’s payment for marriage; she sold pieces in time of need but kept some pieces to pay for her burial. The pieces she sold and the pieces that came on the market after her death were melted and refashioned into new pieces. But most of the silver that the smith used was from melted-down Maria Theresa thalers and that is a fascinating story you can read in my book.
Did you buy jewelry in Jeddah?
Marjorie Ransom: Once a collector, always a collector, I think. The most treasured piece I carried away with me from Jeddah was a newly made necklace a dear Saudi friend gave me when we left the country. The circle represents the sun and the crescent the moon. Both bring prosperity. The dangles make a noise that frightens away ginns but brings joy for dancing. Some husbands were able to tell when their wives were near from the music of their pieces of jewelry.
Yemen has always been part of a crossroads for traders. Are there influences from other countries in Yemeni jewelry?
Marjorie Ransom: Some motifs are found in the jewelry across the Middle East, such as the cucumber-shaped container called an amulet or hirz, and the rectangular-shaped container, mahfaza, that held the prayer of a holy man or a verse from the blessed “Quran” were protective. The whale and flower, al-hut wa zuhra, and a barley shape, sha’ir, were signs of prosperity. The Jewish bride in the time of my study, 1900-70, was supposed to wear a gilded, hinged bracelet that held the shapes of a woman’s breast, qubba, and a tomb, qabr. A French writer told me it signified birth and death. I am not sure. These symbols crossed borders. But the countries that had the most important influence on Yemeni jewelry are India on the jewelry of the south and the Turks on the jewelry of the north. When the Turks came to Yemen for the second time in the nineteenth century, they had a profound influence on the jewelry. The silver content of most pieces increased from fifty percent of the nineteenth century to eighty-three percent. Fine filigree dominated the most popular Jewish designs. The Turks may have brought silversmiths but that is unclear.
You have mentioned Jews in connection with Yemeni jewelry. What can you tell us about their role?
Marjorie Ransom: In Yemen the Yemeni Jews performed most of the handiwork, from jewelry to embroidery, leather tanning, blacksmithing, etc. They lived all over the northern mountains and in Aden and the remote city of Habban in the south, Shabwa. There were many Muslim silversmiths, but the ones who did the finest work were the Jews. They were renowned for their fine filigree and granulation. They did much of the best embroidery. When we lived in Yemen in the mid-seventies the silver dealers would describe pieces of jewelry as Jewish work, shughl yahudi, or more specifically as Bawsani or Badihi, which inferred jewelry like that of Harun Bawsani or Yahya Badihi. Most of the Jews left Yemen in the 1949-50. Operation Magic Flying Carpet and some Muslims took up silversmithing to meet the demand. I write about that in my second book.
Yemen had so much jewelry it was found across the Middle East. Did the jewelry play a special role in Yemen?
Marjorie Ransom: Silver jewelry played a very important role in the Islamic marriage contract. The groom’s family paid an agreed-upon sum in the contract and the sum was paid in Maria Theresa thalers. Some of that payment went to the bride. Those thalers were taken to a silversmith who made them into jewelry. The jewelry was sold by weight — grams. Everyone knew the value of silver, including the bride. By Islamic law, the jewelry was the property of the bride and only she could decide to sell. She sold in a time of need and the husband replenished in time of prosperity. In the period of my study of Yemeni jewelry, from 1900 to 1970, the MTs were the underpinning of Yemen’s economy. It was especially true for the Bedouins and the tribes. They owned huge amounts of jewelry.
You mentioned Indian and Turkish influence on the Jewelry. Did their influence differ from place to place?
Marjorie Ransom: When I wrote Silver Treasures, I divided the country into regions. I established about twenty-five distinct styles of Jewelry. I include in my chapters examples of jewelry and costumes, architecture, and, when I could, photographs of women wearing the jewelry. Turkish influence was most visible in the jewelry of the north and Indian influence was not so perceptible. In the southeast in the small governorate of Mahra, there were actually two or three Indian silversmiths. They worked in the oil drilling area of Wadi Masila. They taught some Mahris and one Hadrami their trade. The oil company had felt compelled to import the silversmiths because of the high demand of the workers for jewelry for marriage.
What caused the demise of silver jewelry in Yemen?
Marjorie Ransom: There are several reasons. When oil drilling took off in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s Yemeni men flooded the country to take jobs and send money home to their families. When David and I lived in Yemen from 1975 to 1978 the economy was flourishing. It was the manual laborers who were making the money and you could feel the change in agriculture, which Yemen’s economy depended on. The electric pumps and the small tractors improved the lives of the women immensely. They could pipe water in. For centuries women had had to carry water home several times a day in large, heavy jars. However, the new wealth that the workers brought home was accompanied by new ideas. Gold jewelry was beautiful. The value of silver versus gold depreciated. Yemen won its revolution against the traditional Imams and silver jewelry was considered old-fashioned and “Imamic.” Also, needs and desires changed. Couples marrying wanted modern appliances and furniture for the new home. Silver lost its value as a commodity. I always wore Yemeni jewelry and Yemenis, especially the older women, appreciated seeing it on me but they had sold theirs.
You have amassed a large collection of Yemeni jewelry. What will you do with it?
Marjorie Ransom: I searched long for a museum that would take my Yemeni collection and show it. Last year I contacted the Indiana University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, IUMAA, and they agreed to take my Yemeni collection of the items shown in my book and to mount an exhibit about Yemeni culture in 2025. Indiana University is a land grant college: there are six across the state. A number have Middle East graduate departments. It is my hope that they will study my findings in my first book and the second when it appears. My books are especially important because Yemen has lost so much of its rich cultural heritage through this brutal war of nine years. I hope that understanding of Yemen’s unique folk culture will grow and spread and bind its people together.
The research and documentation you have done on Yemeni culture is quite unique. What inspired you to take on such a mission after a long and successful diplomatic career?
Marjorie Ransom: I was an American diplomat. We collected but, until I retired, I had done little research or lecturing about the jewelry. I am very beholden to a creative and energetic friend I met when I went to my first meeting of the Bead Society of Greater Washington. I told her I had a large jewelry collection, and her eyes began to dance. Before I knew it Ellen Benson was in my house pulling out all this jewelry I had squirreled away after each of our postings. She designed an exhibit for the Bead Museum that included five countries. The Museum contracted with the renowned jewelry designer Robert Liu and published the superb catalogue Silver Speaks: Traditional Jewelry of the Middle East.
My husband died unexpectedly in 2003. I had lectured at a two-day seminar on Yemeni culture at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery in Washington, DC and, as my good luck had it, Dr. Abdul Karim al-Eryani, one of Yemen’s most illustrious scholars and diplomats, was sitting in the front row as I gave a slide lecture about Yemeni jewelry. I confessed from the beginning that I had collected beautiful Yemeni jewelry but had never had the time to ask questions about it. Dr. Eryani begged me to research and write about Yemeni jewelry for he recognized that the jewelry was an important part of Yemeni culture and should be documented. So, when my husband died and the pain was overwhelming, I applied for a research grant. By 2004 I was in Yemen beginning my research.