Bradenton Herald — Imagine being covered in ornate jewelry — dangling from your ears, wrapped around your arms, resting on your head and braided in your hair.
This was a normal day for the women of the Turkomen Tribes of Central Asia.
“There are stories of young women having to be lead around or supported because their jewelry was just so heavy — they wore several pounds of jewelry,” said Benita Stambler, Asian art coordinator at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
About 40 pieces of lavish jewelry, decorated with semi-precious stones, silver and gold from two Turkomen tribes are featured in Ringling’s latest exhibition, “Splendid Treasures of the Turkomen Tribes of Central Asia.” The late 19th and early 20th century jewelry collection belongs to area resident Stephen Van C. Wilberding, a former senior advisor to the Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency. It includes bracelets, clasps, necklaces, headdresses and more.
While the wearing of the jewelry sounds glamorous, for the Turkomen people, wearing it represented treasured beliefs and a way of life. Jewelry was also how the semi-nomadic tribes kept their wealth, Stambler said.
A look at the region they lived in will help in the understanding of these customs.
“It’s very arid, dry — not particularly interesting from a geographic point of view,” Stambler said. “A lot of the region is uninhabitable. So it really took a tough kind of culture to live there.”
In fact, part of the reason the women wore so much jewelry, including elaborate breastplates, was to protect their bodies during the child-bearing years.
“This had spiritual purposes,” Stambler said. “It started out possibly — some people theorized — as armor for battle. That the women accompanied their husbands into battle. Later on it was protection in a much more spiritual sense.”
The jewelry was thought to protect women until the birth of their first son. Pregnancy and childbirth were difficult in such rough terrain, Stambler said.
After the birth of the first son, the women would wear less and less jewelry — passing down the items to family members. Young women of marriageable age wore special jewelry that included headdresses with jewelry woven into braids of their hair.
The items were later replaced by more elaborate jewelry for their wedding. Married women also had jewelry that held scents — to keep away demons — fertility symbols or written prayers from the Koran.
Wealth among families was signified by the number of bracelet rows the women wore on their arm. The more they had on, the more wealth they had, said Stambler.
“They would have worn those when they wanted to impress someone,” she said.
The Teke and Yomud tribes featured in the Ringling exhibit had jewelry covered with intricate, beautiful patterns. Teke often used the orange and red-toned carnelian stones in their jewelry designs while the Yomud used colored glass.
Stambler said the tribes made their jewelry by melting silver coins. Triangle shapes in the jewelry represented the mountains and Turkomen ancestors.
Other geometric shapes represented the points on the compass, the face of the moon and other symbols regarding time, space, heaven and earth.
Wilberding’s collection at the Ringling is in a league of its own. Stambler said there’s probably no other Turkomen collection of its size in the United States.
With no written language or extensive written history, the Turkomen tribes have dazzled Wilberding.
“The most interesting cultures are those that are difficult to fully understand,” he said in a press release. “This is what first attracted me to the Turkomen tribes. Their mixture of different historical influences, which are particular to Central Asia, are unique.”
published April 25, 2010