Egypt has a long history of jewellery production, but there hasn’t always been regulation to control the quality of the items made. Over the past thousand years, laws have been created and refined, leading to the system in place today.
“A ruler aiming for justice should inspect the markets of his people and delegate the most trustworthy to manage the markets and inspect the scales and weights being used. He should not ignore any coins circulating in the market that are too shiny or mixed with copper; he should be strict and investigate their source, and, on finding the source, whether an individual or a group, he should deal with them harshly and mete out the strictest punishment, making a spectacle of their degradation in the market before imprisoning them to underline the severity of their crime.” The Rules of the Market, Abi Zakaria bin Umar bin Yussef al-Kanani al-Andalusi, AD 828–901
Given the ease with which jewellers can cheat buyers, there is always a need to monitor the process of jewellery production. As al-Andalusi clearly knew when writing his Rules of the Market. On the whole, goldsmiths and artisans do not fashion their pieces out of pure gold and silver due to the malleability of these metals; their softness makes them susceptible to damage if put under pressure, and makes it difficult for the artisan to maintain their shape.
Consequently, to make pieces more durable and easier to mould, other metals are added to the mix – a practical solution to the problem, but one that allows unscrupulous artisans to mask a piece’s true gold or silver content. At the beginning of Egypt’s Islamic era in the seventh century, jewellery was crafted and sold according to the desire and requirements of the client; there was no entity that supervised the authenticity and integrity of the metals being used. The only supervisory authority in the Abbasid era was that of the hassba, who strictly monitored the markets to ensure that there was no room for cheating, and that people weren’t being swindled out of their rights. The hassba had assistants from all crafts, who guided them when it came to the secrets of each trade and helped them to do their job. Of all the crafts, goldsmiths and artisans required the closest supervision. The only way to ensure the quality of a precious metal was to employ a shashnagy, a person who would take a sample of the metal and analyse it, evaluating its worth and carat value. After performing this task, the shashnagy would stamp his initial on the piece as a guarantee of quality.
In the Abbasid era, there were many laws governing the gold and precious metal markets; one prevented the artisans who made hollow rings from filling the cavity with lead or copper to increase their weight. Another law ensured that merchants wrote a detailed and accurate description of any stones attached to a piece of jewellery being sold, since many were made of glass. To ensure integrity, merchants were also required by law to remove all stones from a piece of jewellery before weighing it, whether for buying or selling, in order to determine the true weight of its gold or precious metal. Jewellery makers flourished during the Ottoman era, a period when many locations were famous for their craftsmanship, such as Diar Bakir Tarabuzan, Izmir, Azerbaijan and Yuzghan. This was the points at which hallmarks were introduced, when a sign, known as al-tughraa – the name of the sultan written in a form of Arabic script – was stamped on precious metals, gold and the jewellery fashioned from them.
In Egypt, in 1812, Mohamed Ali Pasha renovated the Darbakhana building, which had been established by Saladin at the Citadel. Its main function was minting coins and analysing precious metals to guarantee their authenticity, as well as monitoring the scales used to weigh beans, lentils and wheat in urban and rural markets. As the number of craftsmen working with precious metals grew, the Darbakhana was moved from its original location to its current one in el-Gamaleya Square. At that time, the assay office fell under the authority of the Ministry of Awqaf, but afterwards it was moved to the Ministry of Finance. Today, the assay office is under the Ministry of Industry and Trade.
In the reign of Khedive Abbas I (1848–1854), the first law was passed regulating the carats of gold and standards (grades) of silver permissible to be traded in Egyptian markets. It also standardized the taxes/charges to be imposed. The Gashanjy Law, as it was known, passed in 1847. It was written in both Arabic and Turkish, and consisted of six clauses, which explained how metals should be hallmarked with specific symbols for craftsmen and gashanjys. In the reign of Khedive Abbas Helmy II (1892–1914), a second law was passed to regulate the hallmarking process. This law was passed in English, as Egypt was under British occupation at the time and a British official headed the Cairo assay office. This law stipulated the permissible carats of gold and standards of silver to be traded in Egyptian markets as follows: ‘Gold – 23.5 / 21 / 18 / 15 / 12’ and ‘Silver – 90 / 80 / 60 / 45’. A third law was passed in the reign of Sultan Hussein Kamel (1914–1917), which prohibited the buying or selling of any precious metals that were not stamped by the Egyptian assay office. After some time, the lowest permissible grade of silver became 60, while the lowest carat of gold became 15.
HALLMARKS: SYMBOLS AND INSIGNIA
Hallmarks were added to precious metals using a fine steel punch, which bore the required symbol at its tip; this symbol was hammered (struck) onto the piece to record the kind of metal used, its carat value, and the date and place it was crafted. Each symbol struck comprised four signs, arranged in the shape of a square no larger than two millimetres. At the time of the British occupation, the punches used to apply hallmarks were made in England and exported to Egypt. From 1916 to 1938, English letters were used to write the date a piece was crafted, and the punches were changed annually, a practice that continued until 1951. To this day, Egypt’s punches are still made in England and exported to the assay office, though Arabic letters have been used since 1940. Despite the jewellery industry being widespread across Egypt, artisans still had to travel
from their homes – often to faraway regions, such as Upper Egypt – to Cairo to have their pieces stamped. Eventually, to facilitate the process for craftsmen, assay offices opened in various Egyptian cities; each area, or governorate, was given a sign to indicate where the piece had been crafted. In addition to a symbol, the initial letters of the governorate’s name would normally be punched into a piece of jewellery.
As the years passed and more and more pieces were crafted, the assay office established a technical department to document all the different shapes and forms of hallmarks, and stipulated where they should be located on each item. Overall, jewellery is not crafted as one solid piece – a ring for example, might be one piece, but earrings, pendants, necklaces and others are made of many pieces joined together with special techniques. This means that a hallmark must be stamped on each and every piece to ensure its authenticity, to monitor the integrity of the process, and to prevent fraud. Adapted and refined over the past thousand years, the rules and laws created to regulate jewellery production today safeguard the rights of jewellery buyers across Egypt, ensuring that whatever beautiful piece you next choose to buy, you are getting what you pay for. Over a millennium later he wrote The Rules of the Market. Al-Andalusi would surely approve.
Except where indicated, all images courtesy of the author.
Ancient Egyptian jewellery is famous for its beauty, elegance and colour; but what was the symbolic meaning of different colours and designs, and how did fashions change over time?
The ancient Egyptians adorned themselves with eye-makeup from at least 4400 BC, and used stone palettes, carved in elaborate shapes, to grind the pigments. These cosmetic palettes were so cherished that they were hung in the home and even taken to the grave.
Through their hairstyles and wigs, still visible in art and preserved on mummies, much can be gleaned about the ancient Egyptians' fashion, health, diet and lifestyle across time.
Over the past two centuries, Egyptian art has inspired jewellers to create works of great beauty, combining ancient fashion with a modern twist.
Jewellery is often prized for its beauty, but to many, it also provides protection from the world's malevolent forces, its very shape imbued with power.
With similarly unusual shapes and multifaceted meanings, the protective amulets worn by the ancient Egyptians are not so different from those seen across Egypt today.
Azza Fahmy is one of the region’s foremost jewellery designers. When she began her journey in 1969, her ambition was to transmit the Egypt’s culture to the world through her unique approach to research and the preservation of traditional craftsmanship. She has successfully collaborated with several international designers and is well on her way to positioning Egypt as a prestigious jewellery design hub.