The continent of Africa is extremely diverse, and as we look at its history of jewelry making, it can be helpful to consider the land in terms of three regions: the Saharan region of the north, the Equatorial region, and the Savannah region that separates the two. These regions are especially different from one another because of their differences in climate, and climate has everything to do with the materials used to make jewelry.
North Africa is covered by the Sahara, the largest desert in the world. These infertile gravel plains are home to the nomadic Berbers, Tuaregs and Moors, who weather freezing temperatures at night and sizzling temperatures during the day. Because the desert is so dry, there are very few materials available to make jewelry, but adornment is still a big part of society, and these people use materials from animal skins and from trade to fashion fascinating pieces.
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The Berbers are believed to have been the original inhabitants of North Africa. Invasions by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, and finally Arabs in 684 AD affected the culture of the Berbers – they converted to Islam, for example – but through it all they retained their own language and ethnic traditions. Berbers inhabit the Atlas mountain ranges and the oases of the northern desert cities. They wear draped clothing, held with metal brooches and fabric belts.
Gold is considered bad luck in Tuareg and Berber culture. In fact, the Prophet Mohammed disapproved of gold jewelry for men, but wore silver jewelry himself, and so by his example, men began to wear silver. Despite the fact that women are allowed to wear gold, silver is the most common metal used in this region.
Tuareg jewelry tends towards the bold and geometric. It is often large and symmetrical in its design. The Tuareg Cross is passed down from father to son when the child hits puberty. Made of silver, its four points represent the four corners of the world. Muslim Tuaregs believe that the arms of the cross will disperse evil from the individual who wears it. The strong geometric shape of these crosses is accented always by interesting work on the body of the cross – small carvings and settings boldly decorate the pendants, which are used in modern times also as earrings for women. These designs are traditional, but are still traded on the contemporary market. Silver beads and pendants are traditionally made by melting down coins, but some commercial jewelry workshops produce copies of tribal jewelry using sheet metal.
Throughout the Sahara, jewelry design has kept fairly close to tradition, but subtleties have changed. Large, heavy pieces with intricate detail are generally older, while new pieces are set with more speed and less expensive, flashier stones.
The Savannah stretches east from Senegal to Chad and separates the Sahara from the Equatorial forest. In the Savannah, gold is used profusely. The Fulani women of Mali wear gold earrings and the size of these pieces increases in proportion to the family’s wealth. Brass and copper are also common because they are traded between North and West Africa along routes that cut through the dry land of the Savannah.
These metals are worn by men in the form of heavy head plaques and by women in the form of anklets, necklaces, bracelets and all sorts of other adornments. Of these ornaments, anklets are at times seen as the most significant: a girl wears them until she is ready to have children. Metalwork has been practiced since antiquity among these cultures, and the design of these pieces emulates other materials available in the region: brass ankle bracelets in Burkina Faso are in the form of rigid ropes.
Besides formal rhymes between metals and other materials, jewelry in the Savannah sometimes takes on figurative form, and the form of animals that are relevant to the local habitat. In the Ivory Coast, Senufo bracelets are made of wrought iron and include renderings of sacred pythons cast by the lost-wax process. Rings in the form of African buffalo serve ritual purposes. Human faces are abstracted and worn as pendants of gold suspended from headdresses. Among the Dan tribe, ankle bracelets of stacks of bells are cast in brass. In Ghana, Ashanti founders make gold necklaces that they have made forever, but like the trend in the Sahara, their work has become larger and somewhat less refined as fine metals become more scarce.
The Equatorial region encompasses much of Africa’s forest and swamp forest terrain, although countries in this region also of course include savannah and coastline. Ivory is widely available through hunting in the equatorial region, and has long been a sacred material for use at first only by kings and now by important people who can afford it or whose position in society merits the bone. In Zaire, one finds ivory carved into figurative shapes, some of which represent ancestors and are worn for protection or as badges to mark initiation into society. In the Southwestern Congo, the Pende make masks of ivory to indicate that the wearer has undergone circumcision and initiation. In Cameroon, one finds colored ivory, dyed with plants, fruits and berries.
The Oba – Benin ruler of the Yoruba – wears a beaded crown fixed with birds and beaded veils to protect the public from the power of his gaze. He also holds a beaded staff. The Ogboni cult of Mother Earth observed by Southern Yoruba gave rise to many ritual articles. These are often made of ancient glass beads, or beads made from clay that supposedly was derived from discarded beads of long-ago kings.
What is so fascinating about the jewelry of Africa is that despite centuries of interaction between tribes and other countries, the groups of craftsmen in each area have retained their respective investments in their own craft. Each area is tightly tied to its available materials and each type of jewelry is bound to mystical or social significance; borrowing symbols or materials from other cultures is meaningless and superfluous. Though techniques have changed somewhat, much of the decorative arts produced in Africa today are true to traditional stylistic roots.