MoAD | Press Room: Desert Jewels – Exhibition Description

Hand pendant (khamsa). Morocco. 19th or 20th century. Silver, copper

Hand pendant (khamsa). Morocco. 19th or 20th century. Silver, copper


An exhibition of ninety four spectacular pieces of jewelry and twenty eight photographs from Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia that was collected over thirty years by Xavier Guerrand-Hermès of the renowned Paris-based fashion empire. This rare and stunning collection of North African jewelry and historic late 19th- and early 20th-century photographs by some of the region’s most prominent photographers was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York and previously toured nationally including to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. This first ever presentation in northern California, as part of MoAD’s new Collector’s exhibition series of important local, national and international collections, offers a unique opportunity to feature and explore the people and culture of North Africa.

This exhibition and related programs have been made possible by the generous support of Farella Braun + Martel LLP.


For millennia North Africa, including the nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt, has served as a crossroads for the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. Starting well before the Christian era, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and Greeks mingled with the Amazigh peoples. Also known as Berbers, they are thought to be the original inhabitants of the region, along with Africans from south of the Sahara Desert.

Following the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th century CE, the Imazighen gradually converted to Islam and over generations were assimilated into Arab communities. They played an important role in the Arab conquest of Spain in the 8th century and built empires in North Africa and Spain in the 11th to 13th centuries. To this day Imazighen still preserve aspects of their cultural identity, and they divide themselves into different confederations that speak distinct languages in addition to Arabic.

The exhibition provides insight into the region’s changing societies. North African arts include variations of delicate pottery, beautifully embroidered and woven textiles, elegant woodwork, leatherwork and metalwork, and intricate silver and gold jewelry. It also includes includes compelling images showing daily life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a wide range of jewelry illustrates the diversity and enduring beauty of North Africa’s artistic traditions.

North African Jewelry

Fibula (tabzimt). Aït Yenni peoples, Great Kabylie, Algeria. Late 19th century. Silver, coral, enamel

In the elaborate jewelry worn by North African women, a profusion of pendants, colored enamels and precious or semiprecious stones transform the pieces into flamboyant and conspicuous works of art. Women receive jewelry from their husbands when they marry, and they wear them as symbolic expressions of social codes and identity. In certain shapes and materials, jewelry is seen as a way to protect the wearer. The hand, or khamsa, is considered a potent shield against the evil eye.

In rural areas jewelry is generally made of silver and favors geometric form and decorations. Pieces crafted in urban settings and sometimes made of gold display floral, arabesque and rounded designs. Many jewelers in urban centers were descendants of Jews who fled Spanish persecution beginning in the 13th century. Itinerant jewelers worked in rural areas, where their techniques included casting, piercing, filigree work and enameling. Niello decoration lends a distinct black outline to patterns on silver jewelry. These techniques were inherited from Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine traditions.

Variations on a form, such as the hand, show how an object can be borrowed, reworked and altered to suit the needs of different wearers. The many regional styles of ornamentation in the Xavier Guerrand-Hermès Collection illustrate how jewelers shared and adapted techniques as they experimented with new materials, such as coins or synthetics, and discovered original ways to incorporate precious and rare older materials into traditional designs. [more]