Gemstones and natural elements

Glass beads imitating coral and etched agate beads


Gemstones in general are not selected solely for their natural beauty but also for their symbolic significance, often rooted deep in the dawn of civilization. The precise use for each individual gemstone varies according to time and place; the attributed significance having been carried by the tide of exchange and change that has washed over this region for millennia. In general, they are all said to ward off the evil eye, the mother of all misfortune. Amber has always been greatly coveted by women from the Middle East. As it was imported from as far away as the Baltic region, its price was high and varieties like copal amber or even imitations like celluloid amber or reconstructed amber were widely available. The difference is sometimes very hard to tell, and the magical properties attributed to the material justifies the use material that only resembles amber.

Softer natural elements, such as cloves and hair, are occasionally combined with harder materials. In Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt alum is used in jewellery for its apotropeic value; it is usually either encased in a metal frame or decorated with a net of beads.



Objects of personal adornment are closely connected with an invisible power: that of smell. They carried aromatic substances, dispersed fragrance or were made of scented components. This was not simply a form of beautification, but also carried meaning in magic. Scent was used to avert evil, attract blessings and to operationalize transitions in life.

Strings of clove are used to add olefactory charm to a necklace and are said to have a beneficial effect on the wearer. In Morocco, hollow silver ornaments worn in the hair are filled with perfumed sheep’s wool, a use seen in Mauritania as well. As the ornament sways, a gentle fragrance surrounds the wearer. In Palestine, a bride would wear a necklace strung with fragrant cloves. On the morning of her wedding, she would bathe herself in the water used to soak the clove; the fragrant water as well was said to have beneficient effects on the woman that would wash herself with it. In Kabylia, Algeria, wedding necklaces with pieces of clove are used as well. As brides are especially vulnerable for the Evil Eye, no method to protect them is left unused. In Tunisia and Algeria, jewellery created with soft smelling rosewater and ground amber paste is worn. All over the region, oudh is highly valued for its blessing capacities.

This particular aspect of jewellery is presented in my book Silver & Frankincense: Scent and Personal Adornment in the Arab world

Click on the exemples below to read more.