As more than two dozen tribal groups of Turkic ethnic and linguistic heritage are collectively known, the Turkmen were pastoral nomads who lived in encampments, raised livestock, bred horses, and occasionally plundered settled areas for booty and slaves. To ensure year-round green pastures for their animals, the tribes moved two or three times a year.
The Turkmen first appear under this name in Central Asian written sources in the ninth century. By the eleventh century, some groups had migrated westward to Iran, Syria, and Anatolia. In contrast, others had remained in the area that is present-day Turkmenistan. The Turkmen resisted being subject to any neighboring Islamic states, with whom they sometimes formed alliances based on mutual interest. While not merchants themselves, the Turkmen were in constant contact with urban populations, and were often involved with providing transport and security for long-distance caravan trade.
Although nominally Sunni Muslim, the Turkmen kept many of their pre-Islamic customs and beliefs, which often embodied in the jewelry they made and wore. Turkmen silver jewelry carried deep symbolic meanings and often marked an individual’s passage from one stage of life to another. From a very early age, a woman started wearing jewelry whose shapes and materials believed to ensure her ability to bear healthy children later in life. The amount of embellishments a girl wore increased as she approached marriageable age. Once she had had her first children and fertility had established, the amount of jewelry she received and wore decreased. Silver jewelry believed to ward off evil, and men, women wore illness, and especially children.
Jewelry was a significant financial investment, as it was handmade from precious materials. There were cases when, in dire need, a woman would part with her jewelry to help the survival of the tribe. Significant in size and weight, Turkmen jewelry objects were made of silver, decorated with semi-precious stones, and sometimes gilded for an added color effect and value.
Common shapes found on Turkmen jewelry include mountains, animals, horns, and plants. Each Turkmen tribe holds a specific mountain in their region sacred, and only that tribe can ascend it. The double leaf and two-leafed flower motifs are connected to the growth of human existence.
In addition to the shape and theme of the silver metal itself, the semi-precious stones that embellish the jewelry are imbued with protective powers. Turquoise is less commonly used among the Turkmen, but serves as a symbol of purity and integrity. In some cases, less expensive glass beads of the same colors are used instead of semi-precious stones.
The holdings of the Department of Islamic Art include a beautiful collection of nearly 200 Turkmen silver jewelry pieces and other decorative objects donated by Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf. The Wolf collection is rich in amulets, armlets, belts, dorsal plates (hung from the hair onto the back [2005.443.1]), headdresses, and pectoral ornaments (hung from the neck onto the chest [2007.497.6]).