One of several new Met books that will accompany the November 1 reopening of the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia, this month's featured publication will be the first English-language book devoted to the extraordinary silver jewelry of the nomadic Turkmen people of Central Asia.
Written by Dr. Layla Diba, with contributions by Stefano Carboni and Jean-François de Lapérouse, Turkmen Jewelry: Silver Ornaments from the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Collection is published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press. It presents more than two hundred objects—crowns, headbands, armbands, rings, and more—from the collection of Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf. All of these are gifts or promised gifts of the Wolfs to the Metropolitan Museum. Recently I had the chance to visit the Wolfs at their home in Manhattan to discuss their passion for these works, and for collecting in general. Marilyn Wolf answered the door wearing, as she often does, a striking piece of jewelry from their collection. Every available space in the apartment is decorated with Islamic jewelry and textiles that they have collected over the years.
Nadja Hansen: What attracted you to these works powerfully enough to go beyond buying a piece or two to becoming a true collector?
Marshall Wolf: The works are so strong, so emotional. Many are completely unique, and each one sings its own song.
Marilyn Wolf: Many Western women tend not to wear this kind of jewelry because it is so fierce looking, but men are really attracted to it. Men will often stop me and comment on how much they admire my jewelry. They really respond to it. I wear the pieces and I love them but it is really Marshall’s collection and passion.
Nadja Hansen: How were you exposed to these unusual ornaments in the first place?
Marshall Wolf: We collect antique Islamic textiles, and we go often to the Middle East in search of special pieces. And where we go to buy, they sometimes sell this jewelry. After a while we bought one piece, then another and another.
Nadja Hansen: You have hundreds of pieces now. Is there ever a point where you will feel your collection is complete, that you have enough?
Marshall Wolf: It never ends. We are going to London soon for Islamic Week and then we will be in Turkey to look for more pieces. We travel to the Middle East three or four times a year, or when we are called—if, say, a fantastic piece becomes available. We will never stop collecting.
Nadja Hansen: Are you deeply interested in the Turkmen culture and history—that a piece was worn one hundred years ago by a nomad in Central Asia and is now on your wrist—or does your interest mainly lie with the material objects themselves?
Marilyn Wolf: It is really the objects. But in the course of collecting over many years we have learned a lot about the culture. The jewelry really differs from tribe to tribe and region to region. You come to recognize which tribe a piece is from in an instant. When we go to these places we learn by asking questions and we soak in the differences between the tribes and the jewelry each creates, and we want to learn. None of the art stands alone. It is all part of the culture—the rugs, jewelry, textiles, et cetera.
Nadja Hansen: It must be fascinating to travel to remote areas and deal with local sellers and artists, far from the auction floor.
Marshall Wolf: We have been all over the Middle East. The best pieces remain in the country of origin, so we have to go there. The process of negotiating a sale is very mannered. You have to drink a lot of tea and since the sellers often don't speak English, we do a lot of haggling in sign language. But it's all worth it.
Nadja Hansen: Have you evolved as collectors?
Marshall Wolf: We have always tried to buy what appears beautiful to us, but our idea of what is beautiful has changed over the years. It's easier to tell what is good and bad, but it's a learning process to see what is better and best. It is a big issue for collectors because you feel that the entirety of your collections says something so you want to keep everything together, even the earlier pieces that we now hide under the bed. But we think it's more important that the objects that we no longer appreciate can be appreciated by someone else who is maybe just starting out collecting, so we have to let pieces go which no longer speak to us.
Nadja Hansen: Marilyn, I know you worked very closely with the editorial team on this book. How did you approach the process of creating this in-depth and beautiful publication honoring these works that mean so much to you?
Marilyn Wolf: The book was an incredible team effort. Dr. Diba is the first author to delve into the history of the tribal people and the art history of these objects in a real way and not in a fanciful manner. Everyone involved really thought about the works. Jewelry is a hard thing to photograph; it's hard to get it just right. The photographer and designer really came up with inventive solutions. The beautiful vignettes completely capture the heart of these works.
Nadja Hansen: In reading the introduction to the book I was fascinated by the history of the Turkmen people; the words "brave" and "brutal" kept coming up in the text, and you can really see those elements reflected in their art.
Marilyn Wolf: Yes, it's another world and you step inside it. The pieces are very strong and definitely reflect the people who created them. When their fields were plundered due to wars and they had little recourse to agriculture—it is very bleak where they live—they took prisoners for the slave trade and charged ransom for their release. But since they were mostly nomads, they melted down the ransom money and silver coin payments they got and made it into this jewelry. They wore their wealth. It was meant to be conspicuous.
At the close of our discussion, the Wolfs gave me a tour of their home, pointing out favorite pieces and aspects of certain works. Marshall Wolf gestured toward a tiny element of a necklet. "This is so delicate and fluid. Lyrical," he said. "One of the great things about Turkmen jewelry is that the jewelers were able to take so little and make it appear like a lot. They really knew how to fool the eye."