My mother wore Mikimoto and Balenciaga. She hated travelling. I am eternally peripatetic, wear Uzbeki, oud and Turkish coats. We were always embarrassed by the other. She willed me her fox fur, but I wanted her rope of Amber beads. The real legacy she left me was the eyes and nose of a savvy collector, and an African childhood. Kindergarten reported I loved playing in the sandpit and listening to stories. My future was obviously already mapped out.
Around 9/11, I was in Africa, working as a photojournalist, with women in their tribal finery. I had been paid a fistful of money by a publisher, had no bank to deposit it in, and no planes home to Australia for a while. A woman approached me, rubbing her belly, saying she was hungry and wanted to return to Ethiopia and her children. I asked what she had in her large bag. Silver jewellery, she replied. I gave her all my money, she gave me her bag of silver. I showed it to an excited collector friend, who then hired her as his antiques runner. I took my booty back to Australia, and sold most of these valuable pieces, quickly and stupidly cheap, as I had no idea what they were. But I loved the sense and feel and hidden stories in them, and realised I’d far rather be handling silver jewellery than being manhandled during customs searches when travelling as a photojournalist.
Fortunately, I kept two magnificent Rajasthan and Yemen necklaces that were in my original haul, which I loved for their beauty, long before I knew of their value. I started the ethnic jewellery path.
I vowed to be more informed. I started reading, and collecting, books on ethnic jewellery. I currently have more than fifty in my library, but I still know very little.
I made frequent trips to Cape Town, South Africa, where I sat on upturned crates, ate pap, learned African bead weaving and about trade beads, from the hip bejewelled dealers from Senegal, Mali and the Cameroons. I opened a bead gallery in Sydney, where I met fascinating people, who in turn were enthralled by the stories I’d told them. Then life did one of those unexpected flips. I closed my shop, and landed in the dust of Morocco, with the doyen of ethnic jewellery, the great goddess Sarah Corbett, herself.
I took a cheap Chinese bead from my stored stash, and start a blog called Travelling Bead, www.travellingbead.blogspot.com. I had the idea to trade up for a special bead from each dealer on my year long find-myself odyssey and make a necklace. What a ride that was. I honed my nose at Sarah’s wise counsel. My dealers gifted me a bead at each trade, until I had a seven layer chevron, Amber, moon beads, and an Ida au Semlal pendant. On a boiling day I had a diabetic meltdown, and was told later that I was almost involved in a fist fight with my (still) best friend and fellow collector over a handful of Yemen beads. I bought by instinct, and, it is rumoured, compulsively. I tasted the silver, smelled it, rubbed it against my skin. I dreamed silver. I had officially become addicted.
Driving through the desert towards Ouzazoute, with Sarah, I changed my name from Susan, who collected photographs, to Savanna, who wore the world. I added Caravan, because I’d stopped travelling lightly. The volume of my booty had officially made me a collector. Or I had gone mad – decision is still debatable.
Another random turn later that year led me to Venice. I was given the opportunity to live there, design for a Venetian trade bead shop owner, learn Italian and immerse myself in the soul of the Venetian bead. I spent a delirious day scrabbling in the private beach of the ancient Moretti glass bead factory on Murano, where I found some 17th century seven layer chevrons, amongst other bead treasures.
My travelling bead necklace grew, and so did my luck. I met and married my handsome Sicilian, and after a honeymoon month in Venice, dragged him with me, kicking and cursing against his European soul, to Morocco, so he could attempt to understand my delirium, at the font of Faouzy. But where to turn? In the wild tangle of the souks of Marrakech, after several near death by motorbike suicides, Faouzy found us. A cup of mint tea, bushels of silver, a shiver of my anticipation, and. … Sicilian interest. I no longer had to apologise for my apoplexy at ethnic attractions, nor my black fingers and short nails
I was mainly vigilant, apart from after food poisoning in Essaouria, where I forgot to negotiate, and bought new pieces, believing the stories that they were old. On the mend, and bargaining like a Berber, in Fez we found a pair of Kabyle anklets. El Jadida unearthed six old Tanfouks. In Turkey, I bought a collection of enamelled silver Mongolian Chinese Qing earrings. Yomud and Tadjik necklaces. Old Turkmen silver. Uzbekistan and coral pendants.
I’ve taken over our large dining room. Dedicated cupboards line the walls. The table is always littered with treasures I don’t want to sell. The pieces I wear always invite discussion. Am I an historian and collector, or am I a dealer? So many of my pieces are irreplaceable. If by a miracle I can, they’ll cost much more. Because I enjoy the travelling and sourcing more than the walls of silver, I’ve taken the easy way out and regard myself as a temporary custodian, to relinquish my pieces graciously. I used to dream of necklaces breaking around me, and now I have nightmares about a tanker sinking with all my silver. Not entirely unlikely. Like those women who surrendered their bounty to me, I can’t take everything where I’m going next, and I’ll enjoy the stories.