Berber Memories

It has been some time since an overview of Amazigh jewellery has been published, but the latest publication of a private collection is not to be missed! The impressive volume Berber Memories presents the stunning Gillion Crowet-collection in nearly 600 wonderfully illustrated pages.

The collection itself has been assembled by the couple Anne-Marie and Roland Gillion Crowet during 5 decades of travel in Morocco. It consists of hundreds of spectacular objects, all provided with a caption by their daughter Nathalie de Merode. The text of this hefty volume (it weighs several kilos!) is by renowned art historian Michel Draguet. The book is divided into two parts, and I will walk you through both of them to give you an idea of the scope of this publication.


Before we start, it is important to note that the author is an art historian, as opposed to for example an anthropologist or ethnographer. This difference is most noticeable in his choice of words, for example in his treatment of the topic ‘Ornamentation vs Decoration’ (p. 47): the discourse presented there is based on Western theoretical approaches of art. The emic perspective, how the Amazigh themselves experience their jewellery, is not explicitly included here or elsewhere in the book (the acknowledgements do extend heartfelt thanks to quite a number of knowledgeable people). Speaking of Amazigh, the book consistently uses the word ‘Berber’: although the Amazigh have been rejecting the word ‘Berber’ for quite some time now and reclaim their own name, this is not addressed. It struck me as odd, as this book does much to celebrate Amazigh history and culture.


Part 1: ‘Gazing’

The first part is an excellent introduction into Amazigh history. Where other jewellery books do not include Amazigh history or present it briefly, here the author takes his time to explore. This is incredibly valuable, as it is a history of exchange, cultural contacts, and adaptations to changing climate circumstances, all of which have left their mark on jewellery traditions. What is more, this history is not presented as indisputable facts: where conflicting views exist, these are briefly introduced, enabling the reader to obtain a sense of both the ‘unknowns’ of history as well as of the way how any historical tale is shaped by the cultural background of those that write it. What emerges is a portrait of the Amazigh people not as a monolithic entity, but as an ever-changing, rich ‘pluralistic culture’ (p. 79). Starting out in the Neolithic, the book discusses interaction across the Sahara all the way to Egypt, and later with Phoenician and Roman cultures, followed by the Arab conquests and their profound consequences for the Amazigh, the rise and fall of Amazigh empires, the balance between nomads and city-dwellers, Jews and Muslims, and the adapting and improving of techniques like for example enameling. The author uses jewellery to illustrate his point at regular intervals, such as the balanced discussion of the khamsa, produced by Jewish craftsmen, worn by Jews and Muslims alike, and incorporating much older beliefs. All in all, this part provides insight in the venerable time-depth of Amazigh history.

Part 2: ‘Feeling’

The second part introduces the world of women. Here, jewellery is combined with poetry, craftmanship and body aesthetic to illustrate its place in a wider context. This is a hugely important factor that I can’t emphasize enough: jewellery does not exist in a vacuum. It is closely related to rug making, basketry, clothing, body aesthetic and oral traditions. This wider significance is touched upon here and there in the book, by likening jewellery patterns and styles to other examples of personal adornment and objects in the personal space. Also introduced are the uses of jewellery as capital, as amulet and as status indicator, before moving to the jewellery pieces themselves. The collection is presented regionally, starting out in the north and ending in the south. Each section starts with a map of the area, which I love: this way, you’ll get a sense of where the jewellery comes from and how jewellery designs are interrelated. Additionally, on the inside of the cover you will find a map of Morocco, on which jewellery items and drawings of regional dress by Jean Besancenot have been placed –a very helpful visual tool to get a general idea of main regional differences for anyone unfamiliar with the wide variety of Amazigh jewellery in Morocco. Throughout the book, the historic photographs of Besancenot and others have been paired with the jewellery items shown, which makes for a visual dialogue between the black-and-white photographs and the splendor of the colour images of jewellery.


The collection Gillion Crowet

Part 2 continues with the presentation of the collection – and what a superb collection it is! Iconic fibulas, stunning headdresses and head ornaments, sumptuous necklaces and rich bracelets form the vast majority of the collection. Each of these has been expertly photographed and displayed in such a manner that the wide variety of techniques, colours and shapes can be fully appreciated. A very strong point of the collection is that it shows variety within the same type of ornament: for example, the famous worm-hole fibulas are represented by no less than 40 pages with nearly as many different pairs. I find this to be very instructive for the way we look at jewellery. There is not one ‘standard type’ with a ‘standard composition’, which somehow excludes other executions of the same sort of ornament as ‘not right’. The collection Gillion Crowet illustrates the point abundantly, by showing us a wide range of ever so slightly differing jewellery items within a singular type. Here, the art historian expertise of the author is to the advantage of the reader: his descriptions guide the eye and enable us to take in details, appreciate choices made by the craftsmen and see the evolving of styles. Alongside these jewels, there is a vast amount of information about production centers, techniques used, materials sourced and traded, interwoven with meaning and power attributed to shapes and styles. We learn how climatic, economic and political factors caused silversmiths to relocate, trade centers to flourish or dwindle, and techniques to travel: an exceptional view on the background of these jewellery items.

Agency

The agency of patterns, colours and materials to their wearers varies immensely, not only over time but also geographically. This is partly due to the manner in which knowledge about meaning, magic and power is transmitted, both within the culture and certainly to cultural outsiders. What is a meaningful shape in one region may carry less importance in the next, and what an older generation recognized as significant may have changed for a younger generation. Another reason for this variety in agency is because it is attributed to objects by humans: they do not intrinsically carry it, which is why they lose their voice if their meaning is no longer understood. Naturally, these meanings and powers attributed to material forms evolve over time, following changing circumstances of the cultures that bring them forth. The book deals with this given in a number of cases, by presenting varying explanations for one and the same shape simultaneously. This results in a overview of what individual shapes might mean, instead of presenting these as sole truths. Examples are the well-reasoned discussion about the possibly anthropomorphic elements known as atnarich (p. 312), the meaning attached to amber (p. 350) and many other elements.


Critical observations

Notwithstanding the importance of this volume, there are a few critical observations to made as well. Every now and then little inconsistencies pop up, like the assertion that Amazigh necklaces ‘generally feature enameled pendants’ (p. 128): the abundance of jewellery without enameled pendants in the book proves otherwise. Some attributions I can’t quite follow as well, like the statement that the support system of a particular head ornament with three hooks is based on the ‘bulla etrusca model’ (p. 332) – I fail to see the connection, or how an Etruscan chest pendant of 300 BC would be the model for the 'support system' of this head ornament. Perhaps there is a similarity that I’m missing, but the direct linkage of Etruscan piece as model for a type of Amazigh jewellery without presenting solid proof of continuation in between is a step too far for me. The images below show an Etruscan bulla of the 3rd century BC, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, together with the head ornament in the book.







An invaluable reference source

I highly recommend, no, I urge you to buy this book before this, too, becomes one of those sought after out-of-print books that we all know so well: it is remarkably friendly priced for such an important volume. The collection of jewellery presented is outstanding and a testimony to the long and rich cultural history of the Amazigh. Together with the wide historical overview, the wealth of old photographs and the detailed information per region this monumental book constitutes an invaluable reference source for the finest of Amazigh jewellery.


Berber Memories. Women and Jewellery in Morocco (2021). By Michel Draguet.

600 pages, full-colour, available in both French and English.


Available through the publisher Mercatorfonds, distributor Yale University Press and all major bookstores (online and offline).


The book was gifted as advance review copy by the publisher. Images sourced from the publishers' website, except for the cover, bulla and spread of head ornament.

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