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Exhibitions/ Art Object

Pectoral Ornament

Object Name:
late 19th–early 20th century
Attributed to Central Asia or Iran
Silver; fire-gilded and chased, with openwork and table-cut and slightly domed and cabochon carnelians
4 3/4 x 4 in. (12.1 x 10.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf, 2008
Accession Number:
Not on view
Turkman jewelry is worn because of its protective powers, and its design is not merely guided by aesthetic preference but has specific references in a set of beliefs that predate the conversion of the Turkman tribes to Islam. This ornament is attributed to the Tekke tribe that once inhabited the Achal oasis in the southern part of present-day Turkmenistan, close to the northern border of Iran. While much of the jewelry made by the Turkman tribes combines silver, gilded silver, and carnelians, Tekke pieces are instantly recognizable from the gilded scrolling patterns covering much of their surface and the openwork scrolls used on many, but not all, pieces. The pair of confronted birds that form the main motif of this object is unusual, however. Although birds are commonly used in the jewelry of other Islamic cultures, a parallel for this piece in Tekke jewelry is nearly impossible to find. The form is also unusual. While the piece is similar to a headdress element, its overall size and proportion of height to width suggest that this was a pectoral ornament, probably worn strung together with several other ornaments that covered most of the chest.
Although not a roundel, this ornament may well have been worn as a pectoral. The form recalls an element of a headdress ornament, but seems too wide for such a use. The design is extremely graceful and well balanced, and the skillfully executed, fluid line is an outstanding example of arabesque design. The vegetal ornament emanates from the birds’ beaks and flows into the central palmette, unifying positive and negative space. It is then repeated across the surface of the birds’ bodies, where again the design can be read as a clear split-leaf arabesque (gold-positive) and an abstract pattern (silver-negative). The central palmette motif is itself connected to a lower palmette, with the axis emphasized by three translucent marquise-shaped carnelians.

The confronted-birds shape is derived from multiple sources. On the one hand, it resembles the dagdan, one of the most important forms of Turkmen boys’ amulets (see left photograph on page 143 in this volume), which was appropriated for women’s pectoral jewelry, worn on the chest with collar studs and clasps (see center photograph on page 143 in this volume).[23] A similar development occurred with the reuse of the oksay boys’ amulet for women’s pectorals, as discussed on page 118 in this volume. On the other hand, the shape is related to bird symbolism in the Central Asian and Russian ornamental repertoire.

Birds’ heads, double birds’ heads, and the double-headed eagle in particular were emblems of sovereignty in the Near East as early as the third millennium B.C. as well as in Central Asia.[24] This symbolism is also found in the czarist emblem of the double-headed eagle, well known throughout Central Asia in the nineteenth century. Edmond O’Donovan, writing in 1882, mentions that as a reward to their Yomut allies, Russians presented them with decorations that were a modified version of the Cross of St. George, representing a double-headed eagle to avoid offense at the Christian religious symbol (see right photograph on page 143 in this volume).[25] The emblem could also have been appropriated from other Russian products available in the region, such as Gardner ceramics, or from coinage.[26]

The image of a bird with a leaf emanating from its beak is often cited as a classic example of the early stages of the development of the arabesque.[27] This begs the question of whether pieces such as these are the end result of a living yet archaic tradition or a historicizing revival. In either case, the high standards of execution still prevalent are never in doubt.

Layla S. Diba in [Diba 2011].


23. Rudolph, Hermann. Der Turkmenenschmuck: Sammlung Kurt Gull. Exh. cat., Museum Rietberg Zürich; Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin. Stuttgart, 1984, pp. 83–84 and p. 201, fig. D191, for a Yomut example with pendants.

24. Kalter, Johannes. The Arts and Crafts of Turkestan. New York, 1983, pp. 134 and 150.

25. O’Donovan, Edmond. The Merv Oasis: Travels and Adventures East of the Caspian during the Years 1879–80–81. vol. 1. p. 97. London, 1882.

26. Kalter 1983 (note 24), p. 121.

27. Ettinghausen, Richard, and Oleg Grabar. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650–1250. New York, 1987, p. 109, fig. 86.
Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf, Toronto, Canada (until 2008; gifted to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Turkmen Jewelry," October 9, 2012–February 24, 2013, no. 95.

"A Selection: 2008–2010." Recent Acquisitions vol. 68, no. 2 (Fall 2010). p. 59.

Diba, Layla S. "Silver Ornaments from the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Collection." In Turkmen Jewelry. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 95, pp. 142-143, ill. p. 142 (color).

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