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Jewels, dating to 14th-century Bulgaria, go on display

Tuesday, November 21, 2000

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Now in Pittsburgh: The Mamarchev Collection. This is jewelry to view, not buy, which is just as well, since much of it consists of forehead decorations, head ornaments and really huge belt buckles.

A pafta is a Bulgarian word for an ornamental belt buckle. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

It's outdated all right, harking back at least to the 19th century, and as far before that as the 14th century, from the Eastern European country of Bulgaria.

But if you're interested in jewelry and ethnic history, this oak and glass case full of 51 mostly silver specimens is a rare treat.

You can see it at the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in West Homestead, which is unveiling the collection to the public this Sunday.

The 4-by-3-foot case holds not just pafta (two-piece belt buckles), kosichnik (head ornaments) and prochelnik (forehead decorations), but also bracelets, earrings and necklaces -- some decorated with mother of pearl, semi-precious stones and colored glass. There's also a Byzantine gold coin.

  You can join the birthday party at the Bulgarian center

The Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center will celebrate its 70th birthday Sunday in true traditional fashion.

"In Bulgaria you throw a party for your birthday, instead of someone else throwing it," explains Pat French, president of what started out in 1929 as the Bulgaro-Macedonian Beneficial Association.

She invites the public to help celebrate at the West Homestead center -- at 449 W. Eighth Ave. -- from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday. The free open house will feature hors d'oeuvres, a wine toast and the unveiling of the new jewelry collection as well as an exhibit of other Bulgarian art work, plus entertainment by the center's children's folk dance group. Special guests will be jewelry donor Dr. Helen Mamarchev and Bulgaria's U.S. ambassador, Philip Dimitrov.

For information, call 412-461-6188.

-- Bob Batz Jr.


Repeated designs are palmetto shapes and two-headed eagles. Many of the items have religious themes, such as an exquisite necklace (gerdan or ogurlitsa) with a Nativity scene medallion plus hanging crosses and crescents and other charmingly small bits.

"To me, this is the most precious piece," said center Executive Director Walter Kolar, as he showed it off recently in the center's basement museum.

"When it came, I tried it on," admits Center President Pat "Penka" French, who, though she cannot wear it, still is thrilled by this unusual acquisition. "The only other place I've seen this type of antique jewelry is in the museums of Bulgaria."

The jewelry was given to the center by a woman in Illinois, Dr. Helen Mamarchev, who is the vice president for student affairs at Illinois State University. But it wound up here after a much longer and dramatic journey, the details of which no living person knows.

One of the only surviving clues is a plaque on the massive case that notes that the collection -- "from the Balkan Mountain Region of the Tsardom of Bulgaria" -- once belonged to "Colonel Dimitri (1856-1927) and Bogdanka (1877-1936) Mamarchev de Bouycleu."

Helen Mamarchev is their granddaughter, whose full name is in fact Helen Lorraine Bogdanka Mamarchev de Bouycleu. ("But you can't put that on a Social Security card," she says with a laugh.)

Her father was born around the turn of the century in Bulgaria, which then wasn't such a great place to live, and so he and his three sisters moved to Italy, taking the family's jewelry with them.

He eventually immigrated, by way of England, to the United States, and settled in Houston.

That's where Mamarchev vaguely recalls seeing, as a girl, someone building this case to display whatever jewelry hadn't been sold or bartered or otherwise lost.

The living room wall is where it remained after her father died in 1965, until her mother died in 1994. Mamarchev then drove the case back to her home in Gainesville, Fla., where until a few months ago she worked at the University of Florida. "I had no place to put it," and no relatives to give it to. Suddenly aware of her own mortality, she decided to try to donate it to someplace that would appreciate it and share it with the public.

An estate appraiser hooked her up with a Bulgarian-born professor, who told her more than she'd ever known about not just the jewelry, but also her own family. Her grandfather was a famed revolutionary, the Bulgarian equivalent of a George Washington.

The appraiser did a lot of legwork -- actually, "finger work," as Mamarchev puts it, since she was using a computer -- to locate the Bulgarian center here, which was delighted to provide a home for the collection.

The unveiling will be Mamarchev's first visit to the center, which, in part from similar gifts, is steadily building its collection of ethnic artifacts.

For insurance purposes, French had the jewelry assessed by David Kozloff of Shadyside's Kozloff & Meaders, which specializes in antique jewelry.

"It's an interesting collection, because you just don't see that kind of thing in this country," says Kozloff, noting how isolated Bulgaria has been from when it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire through its years behind the Communist Iron Curtain.

That history of oppression may even be reflected in the jewelry design, since, legend has it, the large belt buckles actually could have been meant to protect pregnant women from soldiers' swords.

French points out how one of the hollow cuff bracelets contains a bead. "They would shake it to ward off evil spirits."

The collection's rarity and varying silver content makes it difficult to appraise, but Kozloff preliminarily valued most pieces between $200 and $700, with a few going for more than $1,000. All told, says French, "It's upwards of $50,000."

Mamarchev says, "That's not really the issue for me. The issue for me is that it have a life of its own, a life that will outlast mine."

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