Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Adventure in the Junk Souk in Amman, Jordan

I have a great belt.  It's really beautiful.  I bought it in Amman in 1980.  And like so many things, the memory of the adventure of buying it is the best thing about it.

I loved our first posting in Jordan.  I embraced the culture, the people, the food, the city, the climate--everything.  I was fascinated that everyone I met, including taxi drivers and shopkeepers, were so much savvier about world affairs than so many Americans.  And I loved exploring the Old City for old silver and Bedouin jewelry. "Shifty" and other entrepreneurs came to the house (see first blog), but I also wanted to explore on my own.  People told me I should visit the "junk souk" which was way down in the older central part of Amman, at "First Circle".   We lived at "Seventh Circle", and so I would have to take a taxi . The city was safe and I had no worries about hailing a taxi and making my way down to the souk alone.

I remember that I had to step down, to this place, as one steps down to a basement in New England.  It was dark, and filled with men working on metal—resembling booths of hardware and auto repair businesses. I had brought cash in my pocket, hoping to find some treasure in the form of a Bedouin amber necklace with silver beads, or coral, or lapis.  I had, if I remember correctly, fifty dinars in my back jeans pocket, which was the equivalent of one hundred fifty American dollars.  I walked slowly, peering right and left,  and visited several stalls.  What I found was not very different from the stuff on jebel weibdah, or jebel shmeisani, other neighborhoods in  Amman.  But then I entered one stall, and my eyes spotted a belt of silver and leather.  I had never seen one like it. Huge etched silver pieces adorned a 3-inch wide, worn leather belt.  In short, it was spectacular.  I asked to see it, and tried it on.  It could be worn at my hips and would  work with jeans,  skirts or dresses.  Heck, I could wear it with anything.  So I asked, "bikum hada? (How much is this?)"  My Arabic was simple but I got an answer. “Ktir” –a lot, I said, in my feeble attempt at bargaining.  I got them down from a hundred and fifty dinars to one hundred--still an exorbitant price.  Well, it was a wonderful belt I told myself.  I explained to the two guys there that I only had fifty in my pocket, but promised to bring another fifty next week.  They said okay: fifty now and fifty next week.  Then he said that I could take the belt home with me.  I thought that was more than fair.

I was teaching tennis lessons, at 10 dinars an hour, so after five lessons,  I had the second fifty within the week.  I got a taxi on the street, and made my way down to the junk souk again.  It was a little tricky finding them, but finally I recognized the shop where I found my belt.  I caught the eye of the same shopkeeper, and proudly made the final payment. The surprise in his eyes made me realize that I was one foolish girl. 

silver belt from Jordan

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Julio in Peru

Some amethysts I bought from Julio

One common theme in my life overseas was the pursuit of crafts.  In every country I lived in I immediately set out to discover the beautiful craftwork of the region.  Often, the craftwork came to me.  Back in Jordan in early 80’s, the Arab vendors would always know who the new expats were and where they lived.  Within the first month, they were knocking on my door.  Americans were prime targets, but so were European residents.  Over twenty years after my initial forays into souks, pursuit of native arts, I began sponsoring craft shows for the embassy community in Lima.  This way I got to know the artists and learn about their lives and families.  In one show in the large side yard of the house, I had Willi, the painter, Oscar the woodworker, Ana Miranda , who had a sweater business, Pablo the gourd carver, Jaime the chess set maker, and Julio, the Rock guy.

Lima was difficult for me in some ways.  My Spanish was only so so.  While I could communicate, my comprehension was not adequate for the rapid language that bulleted back at me.  I felt handicapped and inadequate in my Spanish.  And while Peru is a beautiful country, Lima itself is cold and grey and crowded with nine million people.  I was so fortunate to have discovered Julio.

He was a small man, probably Quechua.  He talked fast and walked fast and liked to do business fast.  He arrived in a taxi and brought  bags with stone beads in them.  Sometimes he had old Venetian beads from old houses in Cuzco.  Usually he had amethysts or quartz or chrysocola to sell.  I like to think that I started designing necklaces out of some creative explosion in myself.  But in hindsight I realize that I started making/ selling necklaces so that I could buy beads from Julio.  He would arrive, run-walking up the walk, come in, and we would do business.  He would name his price, and I would balk, but I wanted the beautiful beads and so I would make offers, and then try to get them ALL for something much less.  Julio’s business plan was to move his inventory.  And I know that he loved coming to my house for that reason.  I learned the prices; the serpentine and onyx and orange jasper were very inexpensive, while he could ask more for the Peruvian opals and turquoise.  Once he caught himself up because he asked more for small quartz heishi beads than the large quartz beads.   When I asked him why the small ones cost more he told me that there was so much labor involved in the cutting.  I didn’t fall for that one; and I told him so. 

I miss my bead buying with Julio, and I remember those business transactions with nostalgia.  The thing is-- Julio didn’t know one word of English.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Craft Fair at Pt Lookout in Northport

Over the weekend I participated in a show called Artfull-Gifts, in Northport, Maine.  The setting was gorgeous, as Pt Lookout is the former midcoast home of credit card giant MBNA.  Fine crafters from as far away at New Hampshire brought their work to show and sell.  Friday was a party night.  Wine and snacks were served as guests, who dressed up, strolled down the several aisles admiring the goods.  Saturday was the most hard core shopping day.  I sold several pieces at my booth.  I was lucky to have the help of good friend Beverly at my side.  I have yet to learn the skills of salesmanship, and it was Beverly who would encourage a potential customer to try some necklaces on.  I couldn't determine any trend in taste.  I sold simple and short turquoise necklaces, and more funky African styled pieces as well.  A few weeks ago I had seen pearls sell quickly, but not a one sold at the craft fair. 

All in all it was a lovely experience and I look forward to doing it again next year.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I'll be at the Artfull-Gifts Craft show at Point Lookout on November 19, 20 and 21.  My booth will be on the right wall as you enter.  Besides several necklaces featuring turquoise and pearls and amber, I will have a wide assortment of earrings for stocking stuffers.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My horizon

This is my horizon.  Today is grey and breezy out my window.  The island is shrouded, holding back its form.  But it’s just a game of peek-a-boo, because in a few hours it will appear in sharp focus. Actually we Mainers welcome these  times of fog and mood.  The clear sunny days present a triumphant concert in stero high volume and there is little that we can do but listen in rapt attention.  We need the chance to get work done, go about our business, with the single tune of an Irish  flute which is a cloudy day. 

Today I will make a necklace of Tibetan pearls, brass and quartz.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Search of Yellow Hearts

    In Peru, I collected fancy glass Venetian beads, strung on string, with occasional crosses and shells. They resembled rosaries, but didn’t have any rhythm or order.   Most of the beads were colored, with a feather design.  But some were special; every once in a while there was a solid red one, with a white core.  The white under layer gave a complex hue to the red glass.  They were slightly heavier than the other glass beads.
     Several years later, I received a strand of plain red beads from Sudan.  These were heavy, had yellow cores, and the same rich, dark red glowing color.  I instantly loved them and perused my books to learn more.  They are called Yellow Hearts, or Cornaline d’Aleppo beads.  They are from the early 19th century, were made in Italy, and traveled to Africa where they were traded.   After those relatively easy acquisitions, I had a harder time finding them. 
      In 2008, on a trip to Ghana, I focused on buying another strand of Yellow Hearts.  Word got out, as it always does, that there was an American lady in town interested in buying beads, and soon enough, Musa, Hudu, Hider, and Paul were ringing the doorbell. Hider came first.  He was a young, soft-spoken Ghanaian, who had a vast collection of beads.  Right away I purchased Dogon glass, agates, and Vaseline beads from him.  Musa, magically and magnetically attracted to the bungalow, came the next evening, overloaded with old Venetians, Mali wedding beads, more old Carnelians, and Hebron beads.  Though I was enchanted with the beads, I never saw one Yellow Heart strand.  I told them all what I was looking for and they shook their heads, “No, there aren’t any here.  They are rare", said Musa.  Hudu came the third night.  He was magnificent:  tall and majestic in his satin robes.  I knew, and he knew I knew, that his visual adornment would raise the price of his beads. But of course it was worth it!  Yet, even Hudu didn’t have the deep red beads I was searching for. 
     A few days before I was to leave I hired a car and drove several hours to Koforidua, the bead market in Ghana.  On the way, I stopped at a bead factory and watched recycled glass, mostly soda bottles, be melted down and formed into the famous recycled glass beads.  In Koforidua I saw hundreds of booths of bead sellers—old beads, glass beads, stone beads, rare and common beads—they all were there.  Well, not all: not one strand of yellow Hearts.
Yellow hearts with sodalite and fossil amber
     Then, two days before I was to return home, gentle Hider knocked at the door and there was a smile on his face.  He opened his satchel, and there was a strand of Yellow (and white) Hearts.  He told me he had gotten on his motorcycle and gone into Niger to get it for me.  I had two thoughts.  The first was that I was astonished that he would travel for days to get the strand for me.  The second was that I was worried that the cost would include his travel expenses.  I hoped  that the price would be affordable.
      It was.  There was a transaction, and we both returned to our homes, satisfied.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Let's talk about amber

Basket of Treasures
I am surrounded by beautiful stones and beads that I have collected while I lived overseas.  As winter in Maine approaches, I feel so lucky to be able to come in the bead room and design some necklace with African yellow hearts from the early 1800's, or Peruvian opals that Julio in Lima sold me as he exclaimed, "Mejor, mejor que antes!" (better than the last ones).  I have a wide assortment of brass and silver,  stone beads and African beads. Actually, while I have collected beads from around the globe, it was amber that I sought.  Below is something I wrote about it:

The Lure of Amber

I first encountered amber in the Middle East.  We were in Jordan in the early eighties, and I was looking at old Bedouin silver jewelry.  The vendor--expats called him Shifty—easily found the houses of expatriates, and rang their doorbells on lazy long afternoons.  Hauling a large bag  brimming of silver jewelry,  copper trays, and Bedouin coffee pots, he trundled into their living rooms, and began unpacking it like an exotic, kaffiua clad Santa Claus..  For us it was free entertainment in our own house.    Shifty picked up a coffee pot—“not one mittel hada (like this) in Jordan” he would chortle proudly.  Well, that was a lie.  There were thousands of those.  Bedouin necklaces were plentiful too; some even had real coral, or amazonite stones.  But once, he held up a necklace with yellow- orange barrels.  “AMBAR: he said in a hushed voice.  “rare rare. Not one mittel hada in Jordan”.   I held it. Amber.  I’d heard of it.  But the price was prohibitive and I had to pass.  However, his voice, the price, and the rarity, gave birth to a new passion  for me.

That was 1980.  Now it is almost 30 years later, and I have collected a lot of amber.  I also know the differences of “amber” and amber, and African amber and Tibetan amber , Baltic amber and Victorian.  Those barrel shaped beads on Shifty’s necklace were not the 50 million year old resin material.  They were Bakelite, though original Bakelite sold in the African trade as amber over a hundred years ago.  African amber it’s called, and it is, in its own right, very valuable and expensive.  Baltic amber is translucent, the real deal, and comes from the Baltic Sea.  Butterscotch amber refers to the color—an opaque rather than clear material.

Amber has become very sought after and thus very expensive.  It isn’t uncommon to find strands of African amber, or genuine amber on auction sites for thousands of dollars.  Single beads go for $20 to $50. There is something addicting and alluring about the beads; is it the color? The texture? The lore? The price? The mystique?

Before we left Jordan in 1985 I had purchased one amber necklace from Shifty; it was long, with silver beads with six large “amber” balls.  I later broke it up, remade it into another necklace.  I have several amber necklaces, mostly on display.  Though my lust is appeased, amber still has a mysterious  power .