A Libyan lama: women occupying the guest’s sitting room in a friends’ house, dressed up in their best and decked out in jewelry, the talkfest only interrupted by relays of trays. It couldn’t be more different from a busy stock exchange floor.
But at a lama, every topic is discussed with gusto and plenty of gesticulation, and one thing that’s sure to come up is the price of gold, down to the last decimal point; with predictions of future fluctuations, which take into account everything from the birth pangs of the new Middle East, to rising demand in China, the weakening dollar, and warnings of a global recession. It’s like listening to a room full of Farah Albaraqawis, only all the economic news is seen through gold-tinted glasses.
A girl is initiated into this dazzling world before she’s a month old. The most common gift for a newborn girl is jewelry; especially pendents. These are quite distinctive, there are engravings of Quranic verses, quirky ones like teapots, and charms based on pre-Islamic ‘magical’ symbols like the fish, hand, eye and the horn (which also survived in henna patterns and weaving - like carpets and silks); believed to ward off the evil eye. Within weeks, or sometimes days, of birth a girl will also have her ears pierced, and there are even miniature bracelets, so all that’s missing is a ring.
When all the relatives and friends have given their congratulations, she’ll have quite a collection with which to start a gold hoard, which steadily accumulates through presents for Eid, birthdays and good exam results. Of course some pieces will get broken, and not everyone wants to keep baby pendants for sentimental value, so there are plenty of opportunities to learn the basic rules to managing your gold fund: obviously to buy when the price falls, if you have things you want to get rid of hold onto them if possible till its back up again, or at least only sell when you’ve decided on exactly what you want instead.
More important are the endlessly drummed perquisites to a good buy - as few jewels as possible (as they’re weighed as gold when you buy but removed if you sell), to only buy 18 carat or above, and to avoid designer pieces like the plague, as they date quickly and a big percentage of the price is not in the recoverable net weight.
So all in all, shopping for jewellery is defiantly not for magpies attracted to shiny things, it calls for a disciplined investor’s eye.
The goal is a stash that can be worn, loaned with friends and relatives, and updated with minimal extra outlay, and which can also be turned to cash when needed. If any pieces are not used regularly 2.5 % the value is given in Zakah each year, as they are regarded as savings in Islamic law, and a percentage is owed to charity.
Wearable wealth goes back a long time, and the older designs, with coins or even gold nuggets on a chain, make their function very clear. The craftsmen who make the jewelry worn with the traditional costume still use coins for decorative purposes, but they have to ‘mint’ their own since the Ottoman lira is a collectors’s piece now - forgery in 24 carat gold.
A complete set of Libyan jewelry includes the necklace, the most important piece, which can be anything from one row to five, and comes in many designs (with names like ‘the company’ and ‘the crescents’), matching earrings, and a multitude of rings and bangles – not to mention ‘extras’ like anklets, tiaras, and gold belts.
The jewellery has become more elaborate and expensive over the past few decades, so affordable versions are produced which are beaten very thin, making them fragile, and much less attractive than the cheaper and more durable gold plated silver sets which are now becoming more acceptable, even for a dowry. A ‘fake’ set means the bride can still wear the traditional suit, but receives more wearable gold jewellery. Although such sets can’t be exchanges as real gold can, they’re not worn more than a few times a year; and there are even jewelry rental shops opening up to cater to those who want to keep up with the latest designs.
All of this seems to be the death knell of traditional jewelry making, buying and wearing. But actually heavy silver jewellery and lighter gold pieces were what earlier generations wore, so perhaps modern conditions are turning women back to more reasonable, if less picturesque, jewellery.