While most of these crafts have been made for generations, the profile of many of the craftsmen has changed. Until 1948, most silversmiths were Jews. After the establishment of Israel, many of these Jews emigrated from Yemen. However, the craftsmen today will eagerly recount the history of how Muslims came to practice these ancient crafts. According to the story they tell, Imam Ahmed, the leader of Yemen at the time of Israel’s establishment, forced some skilled Jewish tradesmen to stay in Yemen an additional decade to teach the non-Jewish Yemenis their crafts. Now, these Yemenis continue to impart the trade to succeeding generations, and the crafts live on.
The old Jewish designs continue to be replicated by craftsmen in Yemen today. For example, the two most popular jambiya styles today are the badichi and the bowsani. These designs were developed years ago by two Jewish craftsmen, named al-Badichi and al-Bowsani, respectively. The beaded amber necklaces displayed in the shops today are also based on ancient Jewish designs. Additionally, some pieces made by the original Jewish craftsmen are available at the shops.
There are workshops in the larger silver shops that teach young men these crafts. One such silver workshop lies on the third floor of Ali Baba Jewelry, one of the largest shops in the Old City. In this workshop, young Yemeni men with furrowed brows stand crouched, with tools, over silver wire. Through apprenticeships at shops like Ali Baba, the skills needed to be a silversmith are imparted to future generations. These students learn the ancient skills and designs needed to make the breathtaking handicrafts.
Although the majority of silversmiths are now Muslim, some of the Jews remaining in Yemen still work with silver. Craftsmen in the Old City blithely refer to their labor as “Amal Yehudi,” or Jewish work, because of its history and because it requires patience and persistence, qualities traditionally associated with Yemen’s Jews.