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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Turkmen Jewelry

The Turkmen, as more than two dozen tribal groups of Turkic ethnic and linguistic heritage are collectively known, were pastoral nomads who lived in encampments, raised livestock, bred horses, and occasionally plundered settled areas for booty and slaves. In order to ensure year-round green pastures for their animals, the tribes moved two or three times a year.

The Turkmen first appear under this name in Central Asian written sources in the ninth century, and by the eleventh century some groups had migrated westward as far as Iran, Syria, and Anatolia, while others had remained in the area that is present-day Turkmenistan. The Turkmen resisted being subject to any of the neighboring Islamic states, with whom they sometimes formed alliances based on mutual interest. While not merchants themselves, the Turkmen were in constant contact with urban populations, and were often involved with providing transport and security for long-distance caravan trade.

Although nominally Sunni Muslim, the Turkmen kept many of their pre-Islamic customs and beliefs, which were often embodied in the jewelry they made and wore. Turkmen silver jewelry carried deep symbolic meanings and often marked an individual’s passage from one stage of life to another. From a very early age, a woman started wearing jewelry whose shapes and materials were believed to ensure her ability to bear healthy children later in life. The amount of embellishments a girl wore increased as she approached marriageable age. Once she had had her first children, and her fertility had been established, the amount of jewelry she received and wore decreased. In addition, silver jewelry believed to ward off evil and illness was worn by men, women, and especially by children.

Jewelry was a significant financial investment, as it was handcrafted from precious materials. There were cases when, in times of dire need, a woman would part with her jewelry in order to help the survival of the tribe. Significant in size and weight, Turkmen jewelry objects were made of silver, decorated with semi-precious stones, and sometimes gilded for an added color effect and value.

Common shapes found on Turkmen jewelry include mountains, animals, horns, and plants. The mountain motif is part of the Turkmen creation story and is significant for its ancestral and heavenly connection (2006.544.9). Each Turkmen tribe holds a specific mountain in their region sacred and only that tribe can ascend it. The mountain ram is a sacred animal to the Turkmen and its horns are frequently used in rituals (2008.579.12). The double leaf and two-leafed flower motifs are connected to the growth of human existence, and are part of a long-established decorative tradition (2008.579.6).

In addition to the shape and theme of the silver metal itself, the semi-precious stones that embellish the jewelry are also imbued with protective powers. Pieces of carnelian, a bright red colored stone, are popular because they are believed to protect the wearers from illness and death (2006.544.13a). Turquoise is less commonly used among the Turkmen, but serves as a symbol of purity and chastity. In some cases, less expensive glass beads of the same colors are used instead of semi-precious stones.

The holdings of the Department of Islamic Art include a fine collection of nearly 200 Turkmen silver jewelry pieces and other decorative objects donated by Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf. The Wolf collection is rich in amulets, armlets, belts, dorsal plates (hung from the hair onto the back [2005.443.1]), headdresses, and pectoral ornaments (hung from the neck onto the chest [2007.497.6]).