The Art of Berber Jewelry: Silver and Stones

Berber silver fibula with precious stones
The Art of Berber Jewelry: Silver and Stones
Berber jewelry

Some of the most enticing and beautiful Berber jewelry comes from traditional Moroccan silversmiths. It is a highly prized craft in Morocco. They are not only treasured works of art, but they communicate history through symbolism. Antique and modern pieces alike tell the Berber story.

Adorning oneself with silver is an age-old tradition, yet gold has grown in popularity in recent times. It is the urban influence. Of course, gold is much more costly, reflecting its lower availability. Silver, on the other hand, is produced in local mines in the Souss-Massa-Draa region and has been a staple metal since the 1st century AD. Today, Morocco ranks 20th in world production. The major resource is the town of Tiznit, which has grown in terms of overall production and sales.

Islam came to Morocco in the 7th century, bringing religious justification to the wearing of silver jewelry. Why? The Quran forbids adornment with gold. As a cultural melting pot due to the trade routes, Morocco also absorbed the influence of immigrant groups such as the Jews from the Middle East. From the early migrations to the later ones from Al-Andalus, the arriving peoples brought their special crafts. Many silversmith masters were happy to share their skills with their Berber neighbors.

Berber Jewish woman jewelry morocco
Berber Jewish woman wearing a silver Hamsa necklace and earrings, south Morocco, 1955

We can turn to the Jewish quarter of the Mellah in Marrakech and Amezrou, a village near Zagora, to witness the fine silver craftspeople. They use traditional casting, piercing, and enameling, even though the former Jewish practitioners are no longer there. Modern filigree work is typical of Essaouira and Fes, reminding us of the original jewelers of long ago.

It is a tradition for Berber women to receive ornate silver jewelry before marriage. It serves as a source of wealth when facing hardship or upon becoming a widow. The bride wears a plethora of head jewelry, earrings, necklaces, and rings at her wedding.

The Tasfift is the traditional Berber wedding headdress. It is a splendid headpiece featuring an array of silver and nickel coins adorned by King Mohammed V or Hassan II. A rooster (or chicken) can be found on top to promote fertility. These headpieces utilize coral, amber, and semi-precious stones along with the typical coins and chains. Each shape has a meaning, and many indicate warding off evil.

Berber silver tasfift
Berber silver Tasfift with precious stones
berber tasfift
Berber silver tsafift with a rooster at the top

A typical silver piece is known as a fibula. It’s a brooch or pin with an attached chain that is popular to fasten an item such as a cloak. The Romans brought the original design to Morocco, somewhat akin to today’s safety pin. The Berbers in typical fashion elevated the aesthetics and symbolism. The triangular shape now represents fertility and the home and family (a woman and a tent).

Berber silver fibula with precious stones
Berber silver fibula with precious stones
Moroccan musician wearing two large fibula brooches - beginnings of the 20th century

Tourists to Morocco can’t wait to see the Hand of Fatima or Hamsa in the many regional souks. It is one of the main forms of jewelry but is also found in practical things such as door knockers. Both Jews and those of the Islamic faith use it to ward off jealousy and evil. The hamsa consists of a hand with five fingers, indicating the five-pointed pentagram in other cultures.

Moroccan Hamsa exposed in the Israel Museum Jerusalem / picture by Oleg Kalashnikov

Also common is the Agadez or southern cross, a pendant native to the Touareg desert tribes.

Silver agadez cross
Silver Agadez cross

Of note, twenty-one different variations on the central theme of an elaborate Agadez cross exist; each represents a tribe or homeland. Traditional silver Agadez crosses are produced with the old lost wax technique, a multistep process. First, the metal is melted on coal embers before being poured into a wax mold, and placed in turn in a mold of clay. The artisan may choose to insert wood, glass, or semi-precious stones for flair. The Agadez is a tool for navigation in the desert. It is evident in that the central cross denotes the four compass points.

To fully appreciate Moroccan silver jewelry, it pays to learn something about traditional Berber techniques of casting, hammering, chiseling, and engraving. Every artisan is adept at handwork. Filigree is the typical style of both the Jews and Berbers, passed on through generations. It is lovely and ornate, using fine silver wire. Designs are filled with niello, a black substance.

Berber jewelry silversmith morocco
Historical Berber workshop of a silversmith in Tiznit, Morocco. 1950

The Berber legacy survives and casting is still used. It is the simple method of pouring molten silver into a mold to harden before the application of niello. Chiseling is the process of cutting individual pieces into a variety of shapes. Moroccan artisans prefer the filigree design, which entails the ancient process of hammering to shape the metal, creating a textured and flattened affect.