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Ornamental Traditions: Jewelry from Bukhara

Through June 30, 2019
Gallery 50

Located in present-day Uzbekistan, the Emirate of Bukhara (1785–1920) was an important center of Islamic religion and scholarship and a major oasis on the famous Silk Road that traversed Central Asia from ancient times. As such, it was highly diverse—home to the majority Uzbek and Tajik populations in addition to communities of Arabs, Jews, and Turkmens who played a role in the emirate’s vibrant trade. Over time, Bukhara developed its own iconic style of jewelry characterized by intricate blue enamelwork that mirrored the area’s blue-glazed, tiled architecture. Russia’s colonization of the region in 1866 brought with it more advanced enameling techniques, allowing for increasingly complex designs.

In almost every context, the jewelry of Bukhara embodied great meaning and was rarely considered mere decoration. Incredibly large, ornate suits of jewelry were thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits, particularly during important events like weddings, and were the strongest assertion of a person’s power and wealth. Throughout Uzbekistan, such objects were designed to be worn as sets rather than exist as singular pieces.

Some of the most magnificent examples of Uzbek jewelry come from the court of the last emir of Bukhara, Mohammed Alim Khan (1880–1944), where men and women dressed in embroidered silks, fine silver, and enameled jewels. Their jewelry served various functions, often simultaneously: indicating political status and wealth, signifying religious and spiritual practice, and marking important rites of passage or ethnic identity.

Ornamental Traditions: Jewelry from Bukhara brings together nearly 50 jeweled objects from the Central Asian region of Bukhara—promised gifts from the private collection of Barbara Levy Kipper and her late husband, David—and rare ikat and embroidered textiles from the Art Institute’s permanent collection. The jewelry and decorative objects presented in this exhibition offer an exceptional experience of a rich and vibrant artistic heritage rarely seen outside the former Soviet Union.