Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba by Marjorie Ransom

“Once a collector, always a collector”: A Q&A with Marjorie Ransom

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 US 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 country’s rich and unique 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 percent 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 US Mission, we acquired an old pair of silver upper-arm bracelets which were old and heavy. With that purchase, I began documenting silver jewelry. 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.

These are bracelets from the Taiz area. The center bracelet of heavy twisted silver is the one Babouri’s mother wore.

Pieces such as these were worn on the upper arm so the woman could do heavy work without interference from her jewelry. That year, 1966-67, in Yemen had its difficulties but we fell in love with the beauty of the country and the extraordinary generosity and kindness of its 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 1968-69 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. A muslim woman typically 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 jinns 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?

A necklace in the shape of a circle that represents the sun and the crescent, the moon.

Marjorie Ransom: Some motifs are found in the jewelry across the Middle East, such as the cucumber-shaped container called a hirz, or amulet, and the rectangular-shaped container, mahfaza, which was protective. Mahfazas often held the prayer of a holy man or a verse from the blessed Quran. The whale and flower, al-hut wa-l-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 Turkey, 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 in the nineteenth century to eighty-three percent in the twentieth century. 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, and so on. 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-1970s, the silver dealers would describe pieces of jewelry as Jewish work, shughl yahudi, or more specifically as Bawsani or Badihi, which referred to jewelry that was like that of Harun Bawsani or Yahya Badihi. Most of the Jews left Yemen during the 1949-50. Operation Magic Flying Carpet, which transported Yemeni Jewis by plane from Aden to Israel, and some Muslims took up silversmithing to meet the demand. I write about that in my second book.

Northern Mountains: a woman wear the juice of pulverized leaves as a cosmetic and for protection from the sun, 1977.
Sanaa: Hairpieces (maratiq) with red ceramic beads, worn only by the bride at her wedding.

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 the jewelry in time of prosperity. In the period covered by my study of Yemeni jewelry, 1900 to 1970, the Maria Theresa Thalers were the underpinning of Yemen’s economy. It was especially true for the Bedouins and the tribes. They owned huge amounts of jewelry.

Sayhut, Mahra: left to right: gilded bracelet, one of a pair, 5 cm; gilded nose ring (qashmim or khizma), 5.5 cm; gilded necklace (muriyya), 41 cm; gilded amulet (muriyya or abu mutawwal), 14.5 cm; all the work of Said bin Umar Babatat.

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. The Turkish influence was most visible in the jewelry of the north and the 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 back 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 effects on agriculture, which was the mainstay of the Yemeni economy. 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 with them 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 their 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 and hard for a museum that would take my Yemeni collection and place it on display. 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 studies 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 the brutal war of the last 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 jewelry 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 my and my husband’s postings. She designed an exhibit for the Bead Museum that included five countries. The Museum entered into contract 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. al-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 had arrived in Yemen to begin my work.

Najran, Saudi Arabia: necklace (lazim), 62 cm, early twentieth century.

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