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TO MAY 31, 2003

The reassuring weight about the neck or on the arm, the warmth of conductive metal against skin, the clitter and clack of the dangling decorations…All these pleasures have long been available to American women of bohemian persuasion, who favor tribal jewelry in constructing their sweet-young-hippie or free-spirited-matron personae. But the artifacts’ original intent was more serious identity-building: to indicate tribal membership, to affirm religious faith, to proclaim and store family wealth. And in Middle Eastern regions, the great variety of ethnic groups and the migratory tendencies of skilled silversmiths and traders have meant a diffusion of myriad techniques and motifs. Most of the pieces—all the familiar feminine accouterments (a Syrian Kurdish necklace is pictured), plus various headpieces, hair ornaments, belts, and over-the-shoulder pendants—are at once intricate and massive. A few are gilded; several are strung with Maria Theresa talers, also a primary source of raw materials. Middle East specialist Marjorie Ransom, who over a 30-year career in the diplomatic service assembled a stunning collection of jewelry from all over the Arabian peninsula, was, of course, attracted by the aesthetics. But upon discovering that old family jewelry was often melted down for recycling, she became serious in her efforts to preserve the pieces—the artistic tradition is now endangered, as silver is superseded by gold. Ransom has lent much of her collection to the Bead Museum, donated some to its gift shop (the made-for-export stuff in the patchouli marts has nothing on this), and co-curated a beautiful and fascinating show. It’s on view from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays, to Saturday, May, 31, 2003, at the Bead Museum, 400 7th St. NW. Free. (202) 624-4500. (Caroline Schweiter)