Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ethiopia: Jewelry Shopping

Ethiopian jewelry is apparently well known (at least in some circles) because two of my Pakistani friends independently contacted me about this very thing.  They were both keen to get a few pieces for themselves, and I, of course, would be their middleman.

When finally I had a Saturday to spare, I headed down to the jewelry district in the Piazza area of Addis.  My Ethiopian friend Yared tagged along.

As we walked down the street, Yared took an active interest in my elementary Amharic skills and was challenging me to read all manner of printed materials - store signs, magazine covers, food wrappers, and so forth.  I could struggle my way through most of the words Yared pointed out, but since I didn't know much vocabulary, I understood probably only 2% of what I was reading.

I'm sure I must have looked like a character on Seasame Street as I painfully sounded out every syllable.

As I was trying to decipher a billboard near the football stadium, several boys ran over to investigate.  When they figured out that I was trying to read Amharic, they gave me a lot of support... or maybe mockery is the word I'm looking for.  Once they finished laughing, the boys quickly read all the text on the billboard to show me how it was done.  I decided to give the Amharic training a rest after that.

Snap peas were in season, and there were numerous people selling them from wheel barrows and baskets.  Yared and I paid a few birr and got a handful to snack on while we walked.  Sweet and fresh, these peas were a real treat.

When we reached Piazza, it didn't take us long to find the jewelry quarter.  The gold and silver shops were lined up one after another, and the window displays sparkled with treasures.

"All the jewelry in the windows is real," Yared told me, "protected only by a piece of glass."

"In most other places around Africa," he continued, "only fake jewelry can be displayed in the windows and the real pieces are hidden inside the shop."

silver earrings
I wasn't sure about the veracity of his assertion, but I understood that he was trying to present Ethiopia as a safe and peaceful place.  I agreed with him that Ethiopia was special.

Decorative crosses are a popular theme in Ethiopian jewelry, but my Muslim Pakistani friends were not looking for Christian-themed pieces.  With this in mind, I shifted my focus.  Many of the designs in the shops were from Tigray in northern Ethiopia.  The Tigrinya jewelry featured a fair bit of filigree, and a popular style was a dome-shaped design that reminded me of a tiny, elaborate hubcap for a chariot.  Some of the jewelry was in gold; some in silver.  Some pieces were set with stones, and many pieces were parts of sets that might include necklaces, rings, earrings, bracelets, hair combs, broaches, and even tiaras.

silver crosses
I took out my camera to photograph some sample pieces, and at every shop, I was promptly chastised.  Then when I explained that I was shopping on behalf of my friends in other countries, the jewelers lightened up.  They encouraged me to take pictures, quoted me prices, and slipped me business cards.  The going rate for silver (pre-haggling) seemed to be around 30 birr (about $1.55) per gram.

silver set
Yared and I went through a few shops documenting their wares.  Unsure of what exactly might appeal to my friends, I even photographed the ulgiest pieces just in case.  At the first four shops, nothing much caught my eye personally, but at the fifth, a ring called out to me.  It was a silver job with a square black stone, and set in the stone was a silver lion - the Ethiopian imperial lion.

"chariot wheel" style
I inquired about the price of the lion ring, but all the clerks were busy with other customers.  While I waited to be served, the shop assistant led Yared and me to the back corner of the store where we were given coffee and popcorn - the much loved Ethiopian combination.  After 10 minutes of snacking, we were summoned to the jewelry counter.

The clerk dropped my ring on the scale and began typing figures into a calculator.

"It comes to 700 birr (about $36)," she told me while holding up the calculator for me to see.

Since I hadn't intended to buy much on this outting, I wasn't carrying much birr.  I didn't have enough, so I would have to come back another time to make the purchase.

While I was pricing my ring out, Yared was following the action with great interest.

Inspired by my choice, he walked over to the counter and selected a ring for himself that was nearly identical to mine.

The clerk popped it on the scale, and at 650 birr (about $33.50) it came up slightly cheaper than mine.

"If I save some money from my next 3 paychecks," Yared told me, "I can get the same ring as you!"

"Cool," I responded.

Truth be told, though, I didn't think it was that cool.  For starters, I didn't think we had a "matching jewelry" sort of relationship.  Beyond that, I felt a bit guilty.  For Yared, this ring was a much bigger purchase than it was for me.  He was going to save money for 6 weeks to afford a $30 ring, and for me, as pompus as it might sound, that was basically pocket change.  I truly felt like a bad example because before he met me, I seriously doubt he had ever fancied a silver lion ring.  On the other hand, Yared was an adult, and it wasn't my place to fret over his financial decisions.  I gave the matter no further thought.

We both left the store empty-handed, and then we checked out the remaining stores on the block.

Later that week, I compiled my photos and research and sent them off to my jewelry-hunting friends in Pakistan.

As I eagerly awaited their responses, the days turned into weeks.  Crickets chirped, and tumbleweeds drifted by.

I'm not sure if they were put off by the designs or the prices, but neither one ever did place an order.

At least I did eventually purchase the lion ring, so the scouting expedition hadn't been completely for naught.  Not to mention, I came away with a new ring-buddy.


Anonymous said...

Nice story. But now I really want to see what the ring looks like :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with Becca! Where's the ring pic? haha Love those silver earrings. -Jaime

Anonymous said...

Yes, show us the ring Chris!!

Becky Magee

Chris said...

Sorry, guys. I was planning to post the ring picture on a future blog.