Jewelry is more than just an accessory in Arabia — it’s also an artform that can reflect its surroundings and its maker, and carry the weight of tradition in its intricate designs. Lillian Ismail, a Jeddah-based jewelry designer, understands this well. In Saudi, jewelry is worn every day. “Jewelry plays an important role in telling the history of the country, from what people did to actually make jewelry to what materials they had around them,” says Ismail, who launched her own brand at age 17. “I’m always inspired by concepts or architecture around me here in Saudi. I like to work with what’s related to me individually and to my culture as a whole.”
Ismail, a graduate of the Pratt Institute in New York, has mentored more than 400 entrepreneurs in jewelry design and plans to open her first brick-and-mortar store in 2021. She is most interested in jewelry as a wearable art. “I like to work with contemporary, modern and sometimes Western concepts, and blend it with Arabian, Islamic and Saudi concepts and themes,” she says. “Most of my pieces are intricate because I really believe that it is important to show the soul of the maker reflecting through the piece of jewelry.”
Watch the video below to learn more about jewelry in Saudi through the eyes of Ismail, one of the country’s modern makers, then read on to learn more about traditional and contemporary jewelry in Arabia.
For thousands of years, jewelry symbolized social and economic status (and it was easy to transport — an essential quality for the region’s nomadic tribes).
Traditional Arabian jewelry design is very intricate, Ismail says, often featuring gold, accent stones, enamel and turquoise for color. Pearls are also popular. Jewelry can reveal more about what people in the area do, Ismail says, noting that size, style and materials will differ by their place of origin. “Just like traditional clothing and traditional fashion, jewelry in Saudi has different styles in different areas,” she says. For example, in Jeddah and Makkah, you’ll find pieces inspired by Turkish and Egyptian jewelry.
“When we move to the east, we’re going to look at Indian-inspired pieces and the use of pearls,” she says. “In the middle of the country, we have the use of coins because they had limited sources of materials around them, so they used a lot of coins.”
Lillian Ismail uses pops of color in her designs to give her pieces a modern look.
Today, modern Saudis wear a mix of traditional and contemporary jewelry. This combination of old and new is key to many of Ismail’s designs, which pay homage to the craftsmen and artists of Saudi’s past. She does this by abstracting traditional patterns and adding bold colors to give her pieces what she describes as “more of an edgy, modern look.”
For instance, the ornate wooden carvings and architecture in Jeddah’s old town, Al Balad, were the inspiration for one of Ismail’s jewelry collections. “It’s actually translating old artwork into current times,” she says. “I wanted to, in a way, tell that this is my own creation inspired by something old, which honors the Hijazi craftsmen at that time who created this beautiful artwork.”
Whether you stop by Ismail’s new brick-and-mortar store in Jeddah or shop for traditional gold necklaces at Deira Souq in Riyadh, there are plenty of places to find jewelry in Saudi. See something you fancy? Bring it home as a souvenir or gift.
—Lisa Zimmermann is a travel writer and editor who has previously written for Club Traveler, Boston magazine, New England Travel, American Airlines and Atlas Magazine.