When it comes to jewelry, Africa has a rich and diverse history that cannot be summed up singularly. Jewelry in ancient Africa was used as a status symbol and also as a form of insurance with dowry arrangements which usually included large jewelry stockpiles, which could be used during troublesome financial times to keep families afloat.
Hamar Tribe – Bull Jumping Ceremony
It’s All About Status
Jewelry was also commonly used to convey individual status. Certain stones were reserved only for chiefs and other royal figures. Those who knew how to keep secrets used certain gemstone juxtapositions to relay coded messages.
In some tribes and communities, jewelry also had practical use. The Ouled Nail women of Algeria, for instance, wore spiked bracelets that helped them ward off particularly enthusiastic admirers.
The Symbolic Side of Jewelry
Amulets and talismans were also common among various tribes and communities for spiritual and religious purposes, many of which were believed to give positive energy to the wearer, while other pieces of jewelry blocked evil juju. Jewelry was also used to store/transport precious metals like gold. The oldest African jewelry dates back to over 75,000 years ago – pierced, pea-sized, mollusk shell beads believed to be used for adornment, most likely a bracelet or necklace.
found in Blombos Cave
© C. Henshilwood¹
Jewelry Trends in Ancient Africa
In a traditional sense, African jewelry was worn on the neck, waist, ears, arms, legs, and toes. Jewelry was also worn in the hair and was often pierced, strapped, or sewn onto garments. Popular looks included earrings, nose rings, headdresses, headbands, clasps, corsets, anklets, and more. Materials used for jewelry depended on what was available locally although trade systems were in place that allowed for outside influence. Check out this article to learn more about ancient African jewelry by region.
Animal Claw and Red Glass Bead Necklace From 1800s Southern Africa²
Twisted Thread Beaded Necklace From 1900s Eastern Africa³
Nigeria provides one example, utilizing a lost method of bronze casting which was developed by the Yoruba (13th century). Craftsmen were able to produce intricate bronze and copper modeling.
Ghana celebrated the coronation of kings and their leaders with a show of gold wealth in the form of bracelets, necklaces, and rings, which all had symbolic meanings attached to them.
Bracelet from the Baule people of Ivory Coast⁴
Ostrich Shell Bead Necklace⁵
To this day, Southern and Eastern Africa have more open cultures in the sense that inhabitants can wear beaded accessories. However, in Yoruba culture, jewelry remains confined to rulers. For instance, in Cameroon, beads are worn and used primarily as an expression of privilege.
Ivory Coast jewelry was created from distinct inspiration. Artisans crafted jewelry that depicted local animals. Wrought iron was used to craft Senufo bracelets that resembled sacred pythons. The Ashanti community fashioned helmets made from stiffened hides, decorated with wood adornments and often gold leaves.
Senegalese goldsmiths reached particular heights in their craft, becoming experts in gold manipulation, their creations a fusion of African and European influences. These unique pieces have been replicated in European markets for centuries.
Portrait of African Native Tribe Woman⁶
- African History Information: https://www.contemporary-african-art.com/
- African History Information: https://artsandculture.google.com/
- African History Information: https://nammu.com/
- ¹75,000-year-old beads found in Blombos Cave: https://www.nature.com/
- ²Animal Claw and Red Glass Bead Necklace From 1800s Southern Africa: https://commons.wikimedia.org/
- ³Twisted Thread Beaded Necklace From 1900s Eastern Africa: https://commons.wikimedia.org/
- ⁴Bracelet from the Baule people of Ivory Coast: https://tdsblog.com/
- ⁵Ostrich Shell Bead Necklace: https://tdsblog.com/
- ⁶Portrait of African Native Tribe Woman: https://commons.wikimedia.org/
My Jewelry Repair
Continuing the History of Jewelry
Africa contributed greatly to our rich history of jewelry and accessorizing. When it comes time to giving your jewelry, watches, and other accessories the TLC they need to shine through the ages, My Jewelry Repair is here with our mail-in repair service.
Contact us today to learn more about our easy online jewelry and watch repair service!