African Jewelry

African Jewelry takes many forms and has a number of functions besides bodily adornment.

tribal necklace Tribal necklace, tusk, shell, leather
African Heritage Gallery, Rome

It can be storage of wealth; amassing gold or precious metals or stones in bracelets and amulets; or it can be a symbol of prestige and power reflecting status in society… or it can just simply be a decorative item used to hold hair back.

The oldest African jewelry ever discovered was recently found, in 2004, in the Blombos cave on the southern tip of S. Africa. They are estimated at being over 75 000 years old and are pea-sized, mollusc shell beads that had been pierced. They have worn areas indicating that they were probably once strung into a necklace or bracelet. There are other African beads dating back 45,000 years.

African trade beads African trade beads
Pitt River Museum

Historically, African jewelry is also used to trade and barter with, mainly in exchange for cloth and food, but also more sadly for slaves. African jewellery is seldom just ornamental; religion, rituals and ceremonies play a large part. Found objects are often included and can carry personal and symbolic meanings for the wearer. Jewellery is worn by men, women and children, in some cases from a very early age and may be replaced at a certain age or status event like puberty, reaching manhood or marriage.

African jewelry has customarily been created from organic materials like hide, porcupine quill, bone, animal teeth, animal hair, seeds, nuts, husks, sea and land shells, egg shell, wood, ivory and carved stone.

Ostrich shells have been discovered in disc shaped form in Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites. Ostrich bone is one of the oldest forms of material used. Cowrie shells have an ancient history in Africa and are prized for their durability and their shape symbolizing female fertility.

ostrich egg necklace Ostrich egg bead necklace, Sudan, Pitt River Museum

cowrie bracelet Cowrie bracelet

In Benin during the 15th C, stone beads were expertly carved and in the 16th C coral beads brought from the coast by Portuguese traders were incorporated into necklaces.

nila antique Nila antique blue glass bead necklace, Mali

mollusc beads Mollusc shell beads
Blombos, 75,000 yrs BC

stone bead Ancient
stone bead

In Kenya, the Turkana have manufactured large, faceted iron beads for generations. From the 1400's and at its height in the 1800's, moulded glass and ceramic trade beads, brass bells and coins were introduced to add extra choice of embellishment. Copper and iron alloys were used to produce pendants and simple jewellery.

amber adornment Amber and gold
adornment, Mopti

Ivory and amber have also had a tremendous influence in trade and handicrafts on the African continent. Ivory was especially treasured in Benin in the 16th Century.

Traditionally African jewelry has been used to adorn necks, ears, arms, legs, toes, hair, waists and can be pierced, strapped and sewn on and sometimes left for long periods of time causing physical body damage and restricting movement.

  • Necklaces
  • Bracelets
  • Anklets
  • Earrings
  • Nose rings
  • Headdresses, headbands
  • Hair ornaments
  • Clasps for cloth and wraps
  • Corsets
  • Tribal African jewelry is dependant upon three things: what is available locally, what has been traded and bartered for over the centuries and what the customs and traditions are in the different cultures. For example, the lost wax method of bronze casting in Nigeria and Benin started by the Yoruba in the 13th C has produced very intricate modelling of bronze pieces. Copper is another metal historically used.

    gold ornamentation Gold ornamentation at
    coronation of Ghanain king

    In Ghana, the coronation of kings and leaders is celebrated with a show of gold wealth that is astounding in its glory. Gold bracelets, necklaces and rings all have symbolic meaning attached to the styling and motifs used in the making.

    When tribes are nomadic like the Turkana, Dinka and Samburu in Sudan and Kenya, their creativity is given an outlet in the form of personal adornment. Jewellery is worn to express tribal association, age, civil and marital status and wealth.

    beaded corset Beaded corset , Dinka

    Beaded African jewelry can give out as much information as is written or spoken, it has its own language and much can be derived about history, culture and status. In southern and eastern Africa, most inhabitants can wear beaded refinement but in Yoruba culture it is confined to rulers and in the Cameroon, beads are an expression of privilege.

    Kenyan bride Kenyan bride

    The Kenyan bride, at left, is in traditional beaded adornment including aluminium 'birds' to attract sunlight and therefore the attention of her groom.

    Bead culture, hugely and enthusiastically adopted by many tribes, is a relatively new one in Africa. The earliest known Maasai and Samburu items are dated around 1850; large red beads that were taken back to Holland.

    Mali wedding beads Mali wedding beads

    With the introduction of small, colourful glass beads from Italy and other parts of Europe, a whole mythology built up around the beads with colours and band or block patterns playing a significant role. Neckbands became the primary piece of African jewelry for men and women.

    natural turquoise Natural turquoise

    African gemstone jewellery is surprisingly less popular for using its precious stones that its earth is so rich with, as it is for its semi-precious stones of which there are vast resources of. Stones used by African artisans include turquoise, lapis lazuli, sapphires, emeralds and rubies as well as topaz, amethyst, rose quartz and moonstone.

    Diamonds are culturally seen as devoid of colour and were not traditionally favoured by the indigenous people of Africa.

    Contemporary African Jewelry

    Trendsetter Image from Trendsetter
    online magazine

    freshwater pearls Freshwater pearls

    African jewelry is interpreted in many ways in the contemporary fashion world. Black models are very in vogue and tribal adornment embellishes and enhances many necks and bodies of all races.

    Today jewellery manufacture has become an art form and a way to express one's personality, a form of individual expression.

    Since 'jewellery' is derived from a Latin word 'jocale' which means 'plaything' we can see that historically it has been used as a form of adornment that gives pleasure and status to its wearer.

    flower box ring Flower box ring, FreeRange Jewellery, SA

    peridot pendant Peridot and blue topaz pendant
    freeRange Jewellery

    With access to beautiful stones, precious metals and other unusual material source like fossils and ebonised wood, there has been an explosion of phenomenal design in the jewellery world.

    Creativity is at an all time high.

    Piece - this is a collection that pays tribute to the creative power of the African people and how the use and trade of beads has been so significant in Africa's history and culture.

    Designed in collaboration with Beauty Maswanganyi, master beader, the collection seeks to reflect the contribution of San bushmen with their ostrich shell beads, the African blacksmith who made cast bronze beads, the Mozambican precious natural resources with hand carved timber beads, West African communities who used cowrie shells as currency. Coral and amber, both rare and beautiful, and symbolizing status, investment and fertility are majestic additions in the creations.

    Piece Piece

    Contemporary tribal

    African Jewelry items tend to be big and bold and chunky using ethnic and metal beads, ostrich and ebony discs.

    Africa Nova Africa Nova necklaces
    using fabric covered, amber, red coral and metal beads

    Gemstones, precious and semi precious, new and antique, have decorative and spiritual properties that are highly valued and increasingly in demand. Luckily, Africa is hugely wealthy with resources in this area and the supply of materials comes easily.

    jewellry artpiece African jewelry

    In contemporary fashion the design and originality becomes the essential ingredient in creating an artpiece.

    These earrings below are a new take on traditional Fulani hoops blending natural elements with tribal.

    Dorje designs Dorje designs, Anna Holland using
    antique and ancient beads
    in contemporary styling

    freeRange silver freeRange silver and turquoise
    pod earrings

    Rockchic shop Rockchic shop, South Africa

    Contemporary recycled

    One of the recurring themes we see when looking at art on the African continent is the way artisans are making the most incredible recycled product. Jewellery is no exception and below are a few examples of the creative energy being applied in this area.

    It's an exceptionally good practise for many reasons; the commercial gain of the individual or community; the experience and skills acquired not only in creation of the product but also learning to manage the finances and marketing; the commitment to cleaning up the environment; the artistic growth of individuals and the value perceived in creating something beautiful from very little.

    Below are a number of products that seek to do all those things and are effective in achieving success.

    plastic bracelets Recycled plastic bracelets, Burkina Faso

    hanny yanny Hanny yanny African
    collection polymer clay

    recycled glass2 Kenya, recycled glass bead jewellery

    recycled glass Kenya, recycled
    glass bead jewellery

    Zulugrass bangles Zulugrass bangles

    Leakey team The Leakey Team, Leakey Collection

    New! Comments

    Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

    Are you an artist from Africa?

    Do you want to exhibit your work globally?

    You can do so right here and now by building a web page of your own within this web site.

    The cost? It's entirely free.

    Click here and you'll be 'live' in minutes.

    Do you have an African art gallery?

    Do you want to publicize your gallery and exhibit your work globally?

    You can do so right here and now by building a page in this website.

    It costs you nothing but a few minutes of your time.

    Click here and you'll be 'live' in minutes.