Sunday, September 23, 2012

Faience and Jewelry

Kuchi pendant with faience 'jewel'

If you've ever been to see exhibits of ancient Egyptian artifacts, you've probably seen examples of faience, the lovely blue to blue-green ceramics and items of jewelry. Faience was a technology discovered and refined beginning in the early Egyptian dynastic periods. (Egyptian faience should not be confused with the earthenware of the Faenze region of Italy, now more commonly known as ‘majolica’). It was probably developed to resemble the precious stone colors of turquoise and lapis lazuli. Faience was known as “tejhnet” which meant brilliant or dazzling. Faience objects were fairly common in ancient Egypt until the late Arab period in the 14th century.

As general definition, faience, or Egyptian paste, is a glassy substance manufactured by grinding quartz or sand crystals together with various amounts of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and copper oxide. The resulting substance was formed into whatever shape was desired, usually beads, amulets or other small items such as scarabs or game pieces, and then heated. During heating, the pieces would harden and develop a bright color with a glassy surface. These same substances have also been found to have been used as a glaze over other, more standard mixtures of ceramics.

As with most other early Egyptian arts, the technology and production of faience went through periods of refinement and decline during the dynastic periods of ancient Egypt. Archaeologists have found the remains of workshops where faience artists produced beautiful objects for everyday and ritual use. Faience beads and Shabti dolls have been found in many royal dynastic tombs.

Faience hippo god statuette

Faience remained popular through the Middle Ages, but the appearance of cheap porcelain around the latter part of the 18th century began to lessen the demand. By the middle of 19th century, stoneware had also taken over the market for faience, leaving the art form more or less a thing of the past.

Some faience is still made today by ceramic makers, jewelers and to make small items for the tourist trade. A modern example is shown in the first photo above, a Kuchi pendant from Pakistan. You can sometimes find similar items for sale at The Red Camel.

Faience is one of those very old technologies that seem to have a place out of time. Intriguinginly, it may play a part in the pioneering field of 3D printing of ceramics.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Kuchi Jewelry

Detail of old Kuchi choker with beadwork

Kuchi jewelry has been a favorite of tribal belly dancers since, well, since tribal belly dance began.  These beautiful pieces with colorful glass jewels originally came from the nomadic tribes that wandered the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, moving along ancient routes between the seasons.  The word Kuchi itself is derived from a Persian word meaning migration, in relation to nomads or gypsies, and does not describe a particular group or people, but rather a state of being.  The jewelry of these wandering peoples incorporates design elements from many cultures including those of India, the Middle East, Central Asia and the tribal areas of the former Soviet Union.  These jewelry artists used coins, bells, and large colorful glass jewels to produce lovely chokers, necklaces, cuff bracelets, pendants, belts, rings, earrings, headpieces and more completely by hand, often in centuries-old designs.  These pieces sometimes incorporated beadwork or embroidery.

As with many tribal cultures, jewelry makers were most often men and produced jewelry for families or individuals on request or for sale.  They used the highest quality components available or that the family could afford.  Older pieces were made in good grades of silver whenever possible, sometimes up to 90% and more, but if silver was not available or affordable, they used whatever metals were convenient.  These might include nickle, brass, tin or other base metals as well as coins.  The metal was melted down to make new pieces of flashing jingling finery that were worn by the women of the tribes for ceremonies and everyday purposes or decorated their animals for protection and luck.  The women would then often add beautiful beadwork or embroidery to add color and functionality.

Over the centuries, and most recently in particular, these nomadic tribes have become more settled and don't travel over the great distances that they did long ago.  Wars, droughts, borders and poverty have forced them to stay within ever decreasing ranges.  These days most of the people once thought of as 'Kuchi' are now settled in towns and villages where they can make a more substantive living.  Young people, too, don't wish to live a semi-nomadic life and prefer to live in areas where they can find jobs and a wider social life.  The interest in jewelry making is now almost exclusively done for profit and trade with others outside their culture.  Unfortunately this means that where pieces were once all well designed and made with care, the quality can now vary greatly from artist to artist, place to place and even piece to piece.

Trade with the US and other western countries has made the original old pieces a scarcity these days.  They can still be found, but usually have a high price attached to them, especially if they are silver.  Good quality collectible pieces can still be found once in a while and new pieces abound in both high and low prices and quality.  A quality piece, whether new or old, can be told by a nice design, a good feel and quality construction.  If you have a question about the value of a piece, do some research before buying or purchase from a reputable dealer where you can make returns if you change your mind or are not satisfied.

You can see examples of some of these pieces at The Red Camel.  The Red Camel has been dealing in tribal Kuchi jewelry since 2003 and has built a great reputation within the belly dance community.  Please visit my web site or see my other blog entries for more information!

Update: Shown below is an example I found on the web of a new Kuchi choker being incorrectly listed as an old or vintage piece of jewelry. It very well could have been made by Kuchi craftsmen, but this is a NEW  lightweight choker that the seller has listed as an antique piece and is being sold at a very high price! These new pieces can be well-made and can look nice, and many are made by Kuchi craftsmen,  please just be aware of what you are buying!!