African Jewelry takes many forms and has a number of functions besides bodily adornment.
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.
Historically, African jewelry is also used to trade and barter with, mainly in exchange for cloth and food, but also very sadly for slaves.
African jewelry 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.
Jewelry 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.
Tribal African jewelry is dependent upon three things:
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 and copper is another metal historically used.
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.
Jewelry is worn to express tribal association, age, civil and marital status and wealth.
African Jewelry items tend to be big and bold and chunky using ethnic and metal beads, ostrich and ebony discs, beaten silver and mineral stones.
Above is a collection of tribal jewelry found in a specialist market in St Louis, Senegal.
Turkana, Masai, Zulu... too many tribal sources to mention are gathered together for sale in an established tourist orientated market. Undeniably beautiful and attractive, traders will transport both beads and strung items for literally thousands of kilometers to open markets where tourists and enthusiasts come to buy.
The market is competitive and genuine articles are appreciated and given the value they deserve.
Specialist collier makers and designers like Benin born Marie-Jose Crispin of Goree Island, Dakar take pride in collecting valuable beads, stones, bones, metals and artifacts and stringing them together to make magnificent unique, one-off items that are in fact research items and often give testament to how far a single item can travel... and of the ways it can travel; like appearing in the sand or in a bequeathed or discovered box or trunk after someone has died.
This extraordinary image is the work of a young photographer John Kenny whose beautiful work captures traditional jewelry worn in modern time. The hair clips are give-aways! An exquisite image documentation to her heritage.
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 jewelry manufacture has become an art form and a way to express one's personality, a form of individual expression.
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 a 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 and 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.
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.
Jewelry is no exception and below are a few examples of the creative energy being applied in this area.
The products featured above seek to do all those things and are effective in achieving success.