Bedouin Jewelry: A Collection of Stories

By H. Haveman

Gallup Journey Bedouin Jewelry

Square Bracelet: From the Siwa Oasis in northwest Egypt, John bought this bracelet from a man in Cairo. He estimates that the piece is close to 100 years old.

Everyone has a story – a story to describe us and our past, a story to explain our hopes and passions, a story in response to questions about who we are and why.  Every story is special and necessary and serves as a piece of something bigger of which we are all a part.  By sharing our stories, we can vicariously experience places and people whom we have never known and may never meet with our own eyes.  Through stories we can learn about ourselves and the world.

Gallup Journey Bedouin Jewelry

John bought this necklace at a store in Santa Fe. Similar designs appear on several Bedouin pieces and reflect the significance of fish in this particular culture.

John Beeman is a jewelry designer who lives and runs a shop in Gallup.  However, his path to this place has been a unique one, winding its way from the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, along the coasts of Florida, Washington and New York, to the Middle East and back again.  John’s interest in jewelry began when he purchased a Navajo bracelet at a thrift shop in 1973.  Shortly thereafter, a jeweler offered to buy it for much more than he paid, which John refused, deciding instead to keep the bracelet for its inherent value and beauty.  This was the beginning of John’s interest in Native American jewelry and his quest to learn and collect as much as he could.

Gallup Journey Bedouin Jewelry

John had seen this “spiral of life” design on a piece of jewelry while in Tangier. It is a symbol seen in many cultures, though difficult to find. John bought this necklace, which was made in Morocco by the Berber people, from an Afghan man who runs a shop in Berkley, California. Little jewelry comes out of Afghanistan anymore because of the conflict there.

Almost ten years later, in 1982, he was working in the Tampa-Hillsboro County Public Library System in Florida when a good friend urged him to consider a job opportunity in Saudi Arabia.  Being an adventurous person, John accepted and spent the following three years working for Saudi Arabia Parsons Limited in an effort to build an industrial city at the Red Sea end of the oil pipeline.  Upon arriving there, he quickly observed that there was nothing indigenous to this arid desert besides oil and jewelry.

Gallup Journey Bedouin Jewelry

John considers this necklace one of his prized pieces. He purchased it from the same Afghan man in Berkley. This necklace is striking with its tassels, amber beadwork, and pendants with verses from the Quran – all intact. This piece speaks of the spiritual, as well as material, wealth that this culture proclaimed through their adornments.

Saudi Arabia is at the center of many ancient trade routes and the area has been enriched by exposure to many civilizations and people.  One such people, the Bedouins, have far-reaching roots in desert communities throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  As pastoral nomads, Bedouin women wore jewelry not only as adornment, but also as an easily transportable form of their families’ wealth and security.

John saw many examples of Bedouin jewelry while in Saudi Arabia and immediately noted similarities with some of the Native pieces, and specifically Navajo works, that he had collected over the last decade.  It was easy for him to focus his interests in this new, yet familiar, field.  Just as with Native American jewelry, John dove into books; he read and researched and developed relationships in order to learn more about the culture and history of which this Bedouin jewelry was a part.  As he studied, he started to look for specific pieces to fill in gaps and round out his collection.  Upon returning to the States, John maintained relationships and regularly visited websites through which sellers would display their wares.

John estimates now that he has about 200 pieces of Bedouin jewelry, each with a story about where it was made and by whom and how it traveled and why.  John comments that now it is much more difficult to find Bedouin pieces than it was thirty years ago.  For example, Egyptian silversmiths are aged and jewelry is no longer being produced by the next generation, while war in other areas has made the transportation of jewelry difficult and dangerous.  John feels that these rings, bracelets and necklaces are more than pretty things to look at and wear; they are pieces of history worth preserving.  And in doing so, this jewelry designer and collector in Gallup, New Mexico, has become a part of that history, as well.

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