The Bedouin, her legacy

Eileen Hunter, owner of the Jeweler’s Bench in Freeland, displays a heavy, silver face veil worn by a Bedouin woman until her death in 2003. Hunter acquired the woman’s jewelry through her brother, who purchased it from the woman’s son. - Gayle Saran
Eileen Hunter, owner of the Jeweler’s Bench in Freeland, displays a heavy, silver face veil worn by a Bedouin woman until her death in 2003. Hunter acquired the woman’s jewelry through her brother, who purchased it from the woman’s son.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

“The beads in this ornament once belonged to a Saudi Arabian woman who lived in slavery most of her life. Hang it on your tree and remember our sisters who do not live in freedom.”

These are words written from the heart of a Freeland woman who has learned — through the jewelry another woman left behind — what it means to be free. Eileen Hunter, a Freeland jeweler, has spent the past few months making 200 holiday ornaments from pieces of necklaces that belonged to a Bedouin woman who died last year. The necklaces were part of the woman’s estate, and were purchased by Hunter’s brother, an employee of Mobile Oil Company.

The ornaments are a memorial to a woman Hunter has never met.

“Each piece tells me story about this woman’s life,” Hunter said recently.

The collection of five boxes of traditional Bedouin jewelry were sold to her brother by the woman’s son, who worked for Hunter’s brother, Hank. It is customary for Bedouins to do away with all of a woman’s belongings after her death.

“Following the death of the woman, the son was on his way to the silversmith to have everything melted down when my brother offered to buy the entire collection,” Hunter said.

Hank bought the entire collection for $7,000, then sent it to Hunter, who owns a jewelry and art studio, The Jeweler’s Bench in Freeland. Hunter is selling the ornaments she made from the jewelry.

Traditional Bedouin jewelry is eye-catching, featuring chains, bells, coins, silver beads, glass beads and multi-colored semi-precious stones, such as amber, coral, agate, carnelian and turquoise. And all that metal is heavy, as Bedouin women know. They must wear all their jewelry at all times when in public.

Hunter said she is happy her brother purchased the collection, allowing her to save the jewelry as it was when worn by its former owner. By making holiday ornaments from the pieces, she prevent all traces of one woman’s existence from disappearing.

“The tree ornaments were something I could do to keep her spirit alive,” Hunter said. “It was a way for me to do something positive.”

At times, going through the individual pieces — rings, bracelets, neckbands — spoke to Hunter of woman who lived without the freedoms she take for granted.

“I get both sad and outraged thinking about her life,” Hunter said. “It’s a culture that defeats and enslaves women.”

As she examined each piece, she got a glimpse into the woman’s life. Some bracelets and rings had sharp points that looked more like weapons than jewelry. One of the most striking pieces is a face veil made of silver strands with beads and bells, and wires to attach it to a headdress. Huge chunky bracelets and rings are in the collection. There are also ankle bracelets with small bells that make the wearer heard wherever she went. A heavy, neckband with a geometric design adds to the weight of the collection.

The quality of the jewelry speaks to the woman’s status. The better pieces in the collection — those with a higher silver content and finer workmanship — were those given to the woman when she was a child, leading Hunter to believe that the woman’s father valued her more than her husband.

One of the most valuable pieces is a large necklace of silver beads, Maria Theresa Thaler coins and butterscotch amber that appraised at $3,000. The entire collection was appraised by an expert and author of a book on Bedouin jewelry living in London.

Before the appraisal, Hunter spent hours polishing each of the tarnished pieces of jewelry. Except for one: a beautifully crafted child’s bracelet that was stained with blood.

“When I saw that I had to put it all away for awhile,” Hunter said. “Too sad.”

Another item in the collection was the dead woman’s cloth cap. It tells a story of its own. Sewn into it are tiny buttons, chunks of coral from the Red Sea, and a few coins. Her husband’s pipe and her son’s boyhood cap were also tucked in among the pieces of jewelry.

“She was like me,” Hunter said. “Family mementos are important.”

Much of the collection is still packed away in plastic boxes. But, along with the ornaments hanging on a small tree at the Jeweler’s Bench, Hunter wears a necklace from the collection and has made a few more necklaces from coins and chunks of amber taken from larger pieces in the collection. One item Hunter intends to display in her home is the woman’s wooden mortar and pestle.

“It still smells of cinnamon and other spices.”

The tree ornaments caught the attention of a member of a Seattle foundation.

“A woman stopped in, saw the ornaments and purchased 25 as a fundraiser for Puget Sound African women to start their own business,” Hunter said.

So this Christmas, Hunter and some of her customers will be hanging the egg-size silver ornament on trees that once belonged to a Bedouin woman.

“We will keep to keep her spirit going as a symbol of all women who are enslaved.”

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