The African continent represents to the world of jewelry the power of symbolism. Everything in this country -metals, minerals, organic materials- becomes an embellishment for the body of the natives, often brought to the extreme with decorative elements that reach a considerable size: feathers, teeth, horns, skulls of small rodents are used as amulets and fetishes, recurring elements in this particular handicraft.
In the variety of its tribes and in the diversity of their styles, Africa reveals a clear constant: the importance of the ornament, from the smallest to the most spectacular. Jewels and ornaments are usually worn by men, especially during dances and ceremonies preceding a wedding. In the Fulbe tribe men dance covered with jewels, in a competition where young women elect the most beautiful one. The ornament, as well as the jewel, highlights not only the differences between sexes but also the social status of the person who wears it, and underlines anatomical and symbolic features, such as strength and skill. Mongbetu and Mongo tribes use special ornaments made of shells to cover their genitals and buttocks; such ornaments are usually embellished with geometric designs in order to capture the attention of the person to conquer, aiming to possible unions within clans of same tribes and marriages among the most important individuals.
The labial plate, commonly used by women in Ethiopia, has the function of emphasizing the mouth, instrument used to pass on words and traditions: made of wood, ivory or clay, it can measure up to more than twenty centimeters. Having the mouth an obvious symbolic role, the labial plate has a protective function. Young women wear it to the lower lip before marriage and its size indicates the number of cattle required by the family for the wedding.
Along with these ornaments, the inhabitants of the African continent make great use of semiprecious stones, always very requested, so as to make it almost impossible to identify their origin and dating. Quartz and Carnelian are found throughout Africa already in the pre-dynastic era, which lasted until 3100 BC, while Turquoise and Lapis Lazuli, real symbols of the Egyptian Empire, stimulated the imagination and the work of artisans and goldsmiths in the age of the pharaohs.
Likewise, the Red Coral, called “the water tree”, is considered as belonging to the three worlds – animal, vegetable and mineral – and believed to be a protective element and generator of life; and ambergris, a substance naturally produced by sperm whales, was renowned for its aphrodisiac powers.
However, glass beads are the true love of African tribes, used to decorate headgears, bracelets and necklaces. Altough some excavations have shown their existence and use since pre-Christian times, glass beads arrived in Africa in the fourth century, traded by Indian and European merchants. The artisans of Niger, Mauritania and Nigeria were the first to give life to motifs with coloured beads, while in the rest of the continent the passion for this material pushed anyone to offer incense, rhinoceros horns, turtle shells, palm oil, gold ingots, ivory and even slaves in order to get those special ornaments.
Over time, glass beads became the main feature of ornaments: worn by men and women, each one has a precise meaning and value, and carries a specific message. Their use varies depending on populations, but they are mainly a tool of seduction: their colours are meant to capture looks, as well as the sound they produce, in the more complex jewelry, rattling at any movement.
Cowry is another natural material very appreciated by African handicraft. This little shell, whose shape recalls the female genitalia, originates from the Maldives islands, although its name derives from Sanskrit. Already known in the imperial era andappreciated by the pharaohs that put specimens of cowries in their tombs, this shell spread across the continent thanks to caravans: cowries have been found in the Sahara, discovered in an abandoned convoy of the eleventh century, and in Mali. The precious shells were traded for gold, used for embellishing ornaments, also as currency and commodity trading; it was with this function that the cowries reached the most remote areas of Africa, even to Congo.
Gold was used mainly for jewelry and not as currency. Extracted and worked mainly in the sub- Saharan area it gave rise to a sophisticated and refined craftsmanship of jewelry; in the Middle Ages Arab geographers spoke with emphasis and enthusiasm of some small twisted rings from the “Wangara”, the country of gold. The skill of goldsmiths, especially Senegalese, was unsurpassed: they were able to merge in a superlative way European influences with those of North Africa beyond recognition, and their artifacts were sold and copied by European traders for centuries. But stories tell also of the great fear that people had towards this metal. According to some legends this brilliant material, rustproof and by the thousand reflections, possessed a life of its own; it was infused with an evil spirit could that could kill and bring people to insanity, that could grow, multiply and move in space.
Despite these beliefs, however, European merchants were always fascinated by the gold of the furnitures of African kings.
Examples of the grandeur and importance of gold jewelry of African tribes can be found in the travel accounts of those explorers who arrived in Mali and saw the spectacular ornaments of Fulbe women. Their earrings, twisted and four-lobed, can reach large dimensions and weigh up to 300 grams: to make the weight of larger items more bearable, women tie a red leather thong to an earring, pass it over the head and then tie it to the other earring. These magnificent earrings are often associated with large bicone grains hanging on a necklace, and made with the technique of granulation. The set, which already creates an image of opulence, is enriched with nose ornaments and special headgears decorated with amber beads.
In addition to the Senegalese, Ghana’s Akan goldsmiths were equally skillful in working this precious metal. The Portuguese arrived there in the fifteenth century and soon realized what a wealth flourished in those lands, therefore renamed it Gold Coast. The Akans were an ethnic group divided into small states, but the head of each state and tribe wore to the arms, neck and legs necklaces, chains, jewels and gold ornaments of all shapes, while hair and beard were decorated with gold or coloured beads and rattles. The wives of chiefs wore golden bracelets and rings, and their body was wrapped in golden wire. Trade with the Portuguese led the Akans to increase their production, looking for new inspiration and new materials, such as brass, in order to sell to the European market copies of their extraordinary artifacts.
Golden jewelry was intended for celebrations and holidays, and on these occasions great were the pomp and splendor: participants were adorned by sumptuous bracelets, rings worn on fingers and toes, necklaces, belts and headdresses. Nobles and priests during the most important ceremonies wore chest plates, called“plates of the soul”, and had the task of purifying the soul of the chief; their use was different from tribe to tribe and the wearer was often referred to as a messenger of the king or as a trusted servant.
Also bronze, ancient copper-based alloy, has a long tradition in African handicraft: fusion techniques allow great freedom and imagination in the production of jewelry and ornaments; younger girls of Niger‘s nomadic tribes wear anklets made of bronze engraved with Islamic motifs, and the fact that the weight of such ornaments almost prevents any movement is considered particularly attractive. In Côte d’Ivoire large bronze bracelets are used in shrines as a means of divination and tools to communicate with the spirits. In this area, tradition also leads to wear bracelets adorned with rattles and coloured stones, and each added element symbolizes the wealth of the wearer; finally, in Liberian tribes bronze anklets are part of the bride’s dowry. The dignitaries of Cameron wore bronze necklaces decorated with buffalo heads; these animals, respected for their strength and cunning, represented the social importance of the wearer: hence only the highest dignitaries were entitled to sit, during assemblies, on buffalo skulls.
Silver, metal favored by artisans of rural and nomadic tribes, represents purity and honesty: Berbers and Tuaregs created rings with elongated forms, used as as snuffboxes, reserved for chiefs and high-rank guests.
During ceremonies and ritual prayers knights and military leaders wore such rings, often decorated with figures of warriors on horseback.
Colours exploded in the richness of enamelled jewelry, thanks to the Jews goldsmiths who fled to Africa during the Inquisition, bringing with them the technique of cloisonnèe and niello. Brightly coloured enamels still adorn each piece of jewelry nowadays, making each jewel unique: colours such as sunny yellow, bright green, white, the colour of light, blue and black, which protect from the evil eye.
The decorative elements are inspired by nature: jackal wards off evil spirits, salamander protects against fire, snake is a great defender of life, pomegranate is a symbol of fertility, almonds of immortality, and spiral of eternity.
African craftsmen still reproduce in their art the knowledge and techniques acquired by their tribes through ages; their jewelry and ornaments still express the old traditions of the peoples who inhabited this continent for centuries.
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