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Used to seeing neat Victorian turned beads, Lesley Schiff was fascinated by the organic shapes of the huge, centuries-old Tibetan coral beads a dealer brought into her London shop in the early 1970s. “These things glowed because they were so old and they’d been worn,” she says.
She likes natural minerals because of “the way, when they age, they wear down and have that wonderful patina and smoothness, almost like picking a pebble off a beach”, and so she bought a coral necklace from the dealer. This started what she calls her “quest” for tribal and folk jewellery.
Ms Schiff has since amassed a collection of several hundred pieces worn by people in rural communities with their own distinct culture and which she describes as “jewellery that defines who they are and where they come from”.
After specialising in jewellery at Harrow School of Art, Ms Schiff, 61, started selling antique pieces but as her interest in tribal jewellery grew, she switched to that. “It was a fascinating world and a very social world,” she says. “It wasn’t about money in the same way as buying and selling antique jewellery was . . . This was about people’s passion.”
She opened Talisman Gallery in the London department store Harvey Nichols in 1983 to sell tribal jewellery, before making a final move into contemporary jewellery in the late 1990s as the supply of tribal pieces dried up.
She still collects tribal jewellery, however: “If I see something, I still buy it, but there’s less and less left to find.”
Kazakh necklace (late 19th century)
Ms Schiff’s interest in tribal pieces grew out of her fascination with ancient Greek and Roman jewellery, which she sketched at the British Museum when a student, and the similarities in their workmanship. “With the trade routes, these techniques spread all over the world,” she says.
Her silver and coral necklace is covered in granulation work — tiny balls of precious metal — and although it was made by Kazakhs in Afghanistan, this is, she says, a technique seen on ancient Greek and Roman pieces.
Originally intended as wedding jewellery, Ms Schiff received the necklace from her father on another special occasion — her 21st birthday.
Uzbek necklace (late 19th century)
As with most of her tribal pieces, Ms Schiff does not know who made her “over the top” silver Uzbek necklace with glass stones, bought from an Afghan dealer visiting the UK. “It’s almost like theatrical costume jewellery, even though it’s silver, and is very colourful.”
Pieces were not signed, she says, but were often made by itinerant craftsmen who would travel between settlements.
Ms Schiff says jewellery from Uzbekistan is not often seen, perhaps because it was sold or destroyed during the Soviet era while “people weren’t encouraged to wear their national costume and tribal things like that”.
Necklace featuring antique Tibetan amber by Lesley Schiff
Inspired by buying some flat pieces of 300-year-old amber, which had originally been sewn on to Tibetan felt headdresses, Ms Schiff decided to make a necklace.
It took her about five years, hunting through bags of amber sold by dealers in the UK and India, to source all the antique flat stones she needed. “You could buy a whole headdress [in Delhi] but I . . . certainly wouldn’t have dismantled it to take off the amber,” she says.
Fashion magazines and designers including Betty Jackson borrowed jewellery from Ms Schiff for photoshoots and catwalk shows, and a young Naomi Campbell wore the necklace in an early modelling shoot for Elle magazine.
“It’s strung in a way that it looks so dramatic on a black dress because the black string disappears and you just see these glowing large amber pieces,” Ms Schiff says.
Kabyle Algerian cuff (late 19th century)
On her first trip to Morocco, in the 1980s, Ms Schiff bought a pair of silver and coral cuffs and a coral and enamel necklace from a dealer in a souk. They were made by Kabyle people in Algeria.
“The Moroccan Kabyle people didn’t use coral. They used a glass stone and the colours were more muddy,” says Ms Schiff. “The [Algerian] Kabyle enamel and coral jewellery had such vibrancy and, because of my knowledge of making jewellery, I could see when something was really good quality and old.”
Zuni cuff (probably 1930s)
Ms Schiff’s sister Amanda, a film producer, collects Native American jewellery and brought back two silver and turquoise cuffs, made by people of the Zuni tribe of western New Mexico.
The Zuni style is distinctive, says Ms Schiff, because “it’s lots of little stones in a pattern, whereas [with] something like Navajo [jewellery], which people know better, they would use big chunks.”
She wears the cuffs and her other tribal pieces regularly, rather than displaying them. “Some collectors put them on the wall in cabinets,” she says. But jewellery, she insists, is meant to be worn.