Fashioning Gold In Yemen [Archives:1998/03/Culture]

January 19 1998

Yemen is famous for a variety of handicrafts, indicating that Yemenis are no longer a primitive or uneducated people. Their being highly skilled in handicrafts reflects the openness of their minds and their creative nature. Skillful goldsmiths are just one example of the many skilled artisans in Yemen.
Hand-Fashioned Gold Not too many years ago, the Yemeni people started fashioning gold using tongs, pincers, blowtorches, and iron molds with different designs, and sand crucibles to pour the melted gold in. The Yemeni Jews were the ones who started this handicraft. In our area, Sama’ee, they used to employ Muslims who then continued the craft when the Jews left the area. There was only one Jew who converted to Islam and stayed there. From my early childhood, I remember there were specific places for people of the area to practice this handicraft. Later on, the craftsmen began to work individually. My father was one of them and I always enjoyed watching him work. His equipment consisted of a gas blowtorch, different iron molds, three wires of gold, a sand crucible and a special powder to help melt the solder. He used wires to make necklaces by rolling them up with a simple machine fixed with an iron stick. Then, using a pair of, tongs he twisted each wire into a small circle according to the required design and soldered its ends together. After that, he put it in an acid liquid to make it brighter. He used the iron mold to hollow out circles by hammering the gold foils in the designs formed on the mold. Three circles were soldered to form three-circle earrings. They were soldered in a moving circle to form a belt or a necklace. The sand crucible was used to contain the remains of the finished pieces of gold. These remains were made as foils which can be used again.
Modern Methods of Fashioning Gold Yemenis proved to have a unique skill in fashioning gold by hand. By using modern machines, Yemenis are now capable of producing several pieces of gold jewelry like necklaces which are known as Al-Halabi or Al-Barak.
Using Wax for Fashioning Gold Most of the pieces of gold jewelry exhibited in the market are made by using wax. First, the required design is formed on special wax vessels in which molten gold is then poured inside them. If we want, for instance, to make a fish-design necklace we have to follow these steps :
First: To get some inspiration, the craftsman searches for the required design in special jewelry catalogues. He then carves the chosen design on a gold foil which is later cut out in the form of a fish, say. The cut-out design is then heated and imprinted on the two faces of a piece of rubber, 5x7cm. It has a spout like that of the wax machine’s tap in the front to allow the passage of the molten wax in order to take the shape of the wanted design. The spout of the rubber mold is put in the wax machine’s tap, which is already hot, then the tap is pushed by the handle. The machine then sucks the molten wax inside it to give it the wanted design. Now the mold is to be left for a few minutes to let the wax cool. Then the piece of gold is picked up by a pair of tongs. This process is repeated several times to form as many pieces as wanted.
Second: The craftsmen now attaches these pieces on another wax stick fixed to a tough rubber base where it is possible to attach nearly 50 pieces by ironing.
Third: The stick that contains the designs is put in a steel tin which is filled with liquid gypsum. By heating the gypsum it becomes solid while containing the wax stick.
Forth: The next step is to put the tin in a blast furnace, where the wax vaporizes leaving behind a design on the gypsum. After that, the tin is heated to allow the melting gold inside it to pass through the holes in order to make the wanted design. Then the tin is left in the air to cool.
Fifth: When the tin is cooled, the craftsman gets rid of the solid gypsum to produce 50 necklaces shaped like a fish.
Sixth: These necklaces are then taken to a special room where they are improved by a special machine, which uses diamond points called ‘pens.’ Then the necklace is fixed to a gold chain to be worn around the neck. After that, it is put in sulfuric acid contained in a tin which moves in a circle to polish the pieces of gold . In Yemen, gold is mostly made for women. It is very rare that a Yemeni man buys a gold ring to wear. Foreigners and experts who work in Yemen and especially Indians buy gold in large amounts to market it in their countries. As far as Arabs are concerned, Egyptians and Sudanese are the biggest buyers of gold.
Mohammed Al-Sami’ A graduate of Faculty of English, Taiz University