In our latest member spotlight, BMS Administrator Ella talks to Sarah Corbett about her journey with Moroccan jewels, from a tiny High Atlas village, to the prestigious Michael Backman Gallery in central London.

First of all, can you tell me a little about how you became interested in jewellery and textiles?

My journey with jewellery started in a tiny High Atlas village in Morocco around 17 years ago. I was running a company which set up fair trade co-operatives and visited artisans in remote locations regularly. Occasionally, women would ask to sell jewellery to me to raise funds to deal with various needs, such as a leaky roof, broken cars and medicines, and I was always happy to help. I would have happily given the women the funds for these life events; however a mixture of proud tradition and values meant that the arrangement preferred by the women was a trade.

Over time, I accumulated a selection of various small bags and boxes containing jewellery pieces which had come to me via this route. I had not considered their value, so I eventually took pictures and offered them on a well-known auction site with starting prices of just £4.99 each. As the prices rose during the week that the items were on offer, I was truly surprised. One particular necklace seemed to generate a lot of interest, with requests for closer images of a particular bead. This piqued my interest, and my journey into the beautiful, personal, and cultural history of these wonderful adornments began that day.

And how did your journey with Moroccan jewels, which eventually led you to trading them, develop from there?

My launch into trading jewellery was aided hugely by a chance encounter in the South of Morocco. I was eating with my family in a café in a hot dusty town in the Draa region. A Moroccan gentleman approached me, and spoke to me using my name, he told me that he had been waiting for me to arrive, and that I should come to speak with him once I had finished eating.  After lunch I went to speak to him. He took me to his small shop, and I was surrounded by recently made tourist stock types of jewellery.

I began to make polite excuses and prepare to leave the shop, when a sweet silver fibula caught my eye. I was relieved to have found something which I could genuinely be interested to purchase. I enquired about the piece, and was congratulated on having made an excellent choice, and invited to see the rest of the antiques in the upstairs area of the shop. What awaited me was beyond belief.

The trader explained that the stack of small cedar boxes had been gathered by three generations of his family, he picked up the first, and offered it to me to look inside, I asked if we could begin by seeing the jewels contained in the boxes which had been filled by his grandfather, he politely declined my request and explained that in time and with many visits I could mark the boxes I had seen in reverse order and that with endurance and patience I would see the contents of the last box. I did indeed return many times until all of the boxes were depleted. In those many long days of exploring the contents of the little time capsule treasure chests, over endless glasses of mint tea, and the occasional wonderful home cooked tagine, my knowledge grew.

I am so thankful to the gentleman for the experience, I was given an opportunity to handle and understand the craftsmanship of pieces to see the differing skill levels of the jewellers in similar pieces, to truly appreciate the art. I will always deeply appreciate this calm and relaxed space in which I learned at my own pace and also the wonderful pieces which set me on the road to dealing with some treasured and wonderful clients who have overtime become friends.

When I began to immerse myself in the trade of adornments I became aware that many of the pieces which I saw offered on the internet were greatly misdescribed, either by those who did not know the true age, origin and value of their wares, or sadly by those with other negative intent. I felt that it would be beneficial to the promotion of clarity and honesty within the ethnic jewellery market to create a way to openly share knowledge relating to the history, detail and provenance of ethnic pieces of adornment, a space where questions could be put to knowledgeable people in an open forum. A place which belonged to the wider jewellery community, and which could be considered a safe source of information. In 2010 the seeds of this dream were planted with the creation of the ethnic jewels forum, which became a great resource for those wishing to better understand and to appreciate the world of adornment. Now an 8000+ person strong facebook group is a true world community. I also have an online magazine called the Ethnic Jewels Magazine

My travels to Morocco continue, as does my quest to better understand the language and history of the jewels.

Are you working on any current projects?

I continue to work on projects which develop a greater appreciation and understanding of adornment, which I consider to be the most personal of art forms, such as an archive of jewellery information shared in the online jewel spaces mentioned in this article.

For several years I have worked as a consultant for the prestigious Michael Backman Gallery in central London. Michael and I have a series of Podcasts which we make as often as we are able.

Many of our members may have come across the Virtual Souk. Can you tell me more about that?

I was a founder of Henna Cafe in Marrakech following a chance meeting with Mike Wood (our BMS Chair) on a flight to Morocco. We hatched an idea on that flight to create a project to benefit Moroccan people. During the recent lockdowns, I became aware of the devastating effect that the lack of tourism would have on my friends in Morocco. So via a project called the Virtual Souk.I sold jewellery to support both friends and artisans in Morocco and also to raise funds for the Henna Cafe Soup Kitchen project.

This project captured the imagination of other jewellery dealers, and over two years we have hosted over 120 sales, each of which has raised funds either wholly or as a donation from the hosting seller for charities all around the world.