Traditional African Jewelry

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ellenm1 / Foter / CC BY

Traditional African jewelry is phenomenally interesting with numerous domains branching out and each having substantial depth. It has been and is a researcher’s paradise. Such jewelry items of Africa adorned both men and women. These comprised of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, nose rings, anklets, head bands, hair clasps, pins that bedecked the necks, ears, arms, legs, toes, hair and waist. At times, the pieces were pierced, sewn or strapped to body parts.

Traditional African ornaments come in diverse forms and, besides bodily adornment, they have other functions. Religion, ceremonies and rituals play a dominant role, since the customary jewelry items have explicit symbolic meaning for the wearer. Basically, the jewelry is a decorative item, but it can also represent power and status in the society or it can be used as a storage cavity for storing precious stones. Alternatively, the artifacts were a crucial element in the barter system of earlier years, and were traded for food, clothing and other necessities.

Philbert Photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The oldest forms of African vintage jewelry, pierced mollusk shell beads, probably forming a necklace or bracelet, were discovered in the southern tip of South Africa in the Blombos cave around 75000 years ago. Most of the native ornamental pieces were created from organic materials like ostrich bones, cowry shells, sea and land shells, egg shells, wood, hides, porcupine quills, animal teeth, husks, seeds, animal hair, nuts, carved stone and ivory.

AFRICAN GREEN JASPERHistorical records indicate how, through generations, the Turkana community in Kenya was famed for manufacturing big-sized faceted iron beads that created exclusive jewelry items. Other materials, that had widespread usage in jewelry-making from the 1400 until the 1800, were molded glass, ceramic trade beads, coins and brass bells. These materials were beauty-enhancement elements of the ornament and were often used as embellishments. Likewise, copper, iron alloys, ivory and amber had similar utilities and dominated the native jewelry scenario.

Interestingly, an astounding feature prevails during the coronation of kings and leaders of Ghana. The event is celebrated with an abundance of gold ornamental pieces that created a spectacular atmosphere. The creativity of the craftsmen found an outlet, while the designed motif and style indicated a symbolic meaning. Additionally, these native African jewelry items also expressed tribal association along with the wearer’s age, marital status and authority.

mharrsch / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Similarly, the beaded traditional African jewelry pays tribute to the ingenuity of the artisans and signifies the use and trade of beads in the African history and culture. The role of San bushmen in piercing ostrich shell beads and master African blacksmiths in making cast bronze beads, hand-carved timber beads, blended with coral and amber bead stones, provide majestic additions in the creations that are both rare and beautiful. These unique bold and chunky items, using ethnic metal beads, ebony discs and ostrich-shell beads, are still raved about and their contribution cannot be under-estimated.

The earliest known large red Maasai and Samburu bead items date back to1850. However, the introduction of scintillating, small and colorful glass beads from Italy was used in the development of block pattern in neckbands that dominated the ethnic jewelry style of African men and women. Though south and east Africa saw prolific use of beads in their ornamental items, some inhabitants like the Yoruba tribes confined beaded jewelry adornment to their rulers while in Cameroon, the beaded items represented honor. In Kenya, beaded jewelry was compulsory for bridal wear.

RayMorris1 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Surprisingly, traditional gemstone jewelry in Africa was not as popular as beaded items. Since the continent is the natural reservoir of precious and semi-precious gemstones having decorative as well as spiritual properties, the African artisans have used turquoise, sapphires, rose quartz and other gemstones in designing original artistic jewelry pieces. Incidentally, the indigenous natives in Africa were never favorably inclined towards the sparkling diamonds. This fact was prominent displayed as most of the ethnic ornaments did not showcase this gem stone.

Elephant hair bracelets adorn traditional South Africans but have become extremely rare. These mystical pieces are beautiful and are designed from original African elephant hairs. Such items are worn as a sign of respect to the earthly Gods and are indicative of the African elephants’ high esteem.

Traditional African jewelry is an art form that is very much in vogue. The jewelry items embellish and enhance the beauty of the wearer and, at the same time, bestow status and provide pleasure to the person. The ethnic pieces showcase the creative skill-sets of the artisans and portray the rich cultural heritage of Africa.

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