wning a piece of African jewelry is like owning a world of culture and history in its own beautiful form. Even though there is history and meaning behind each piece, it’s the art in the jewelry that grabs the attention of most collectors. To speak of African jewelry as though there were a single unifying theme would be misleading. Africa is a vast continent, and African peoples have a long history. Their jewelry, in different regions, depends on jewelry-making from source materials available to them in their own locations, and their styles are influenced by their cultural and religious underpinnings. There could be overt influences just as much as underlying themes, shaped by all kinds of historical influences and ideas that unconsciously shape the designs of the jewelry. Over time, there are cross-influences within the continent, and of course, the impact of Western invaders and colonizers cannot be ignored.
There are several artistic, religious, spiritual and cultural elements of African heritage visible in each uniquely crafted piece of jewelry.
Around the turn of the 10th century, when bronze work was common, crafting these pieces became more complex. Bronze pieces were normally decorated with ivory or precious stones and several of these pieces were identified with royalty. Beads have also played a very important role in African culture and can be seen today in many of the beautiful pieces of jewelry created by the skilled craftsmen who make them.
The making of beads was probably the earliest form of jewelry making in Africa, and there is evidence to suggest the origins of African bead jewelry - such as rudimentary beads made from eggs and other simple materials - go back over 75,000 years. That's according to recent archeological finds. It is not surprising that African artisans resorted to materials that they could find. Stones such as turquoise, lapis lazuli, emeralds, rubies and sapphires were fashioned into their jewelry. Metals such as copper, bronze and gold are also used.
Traditional West African ornaments formed a visual language that spoke to the observer about status, beliefs, family, accomplishments and life experiences of the wearer. Each bead, knot, pendant or bracelet was formed with spiritual care, and the materials themselves each had special powers and their own stories. For example, in Ghana, a bride wore a belt of beads purchased by her husband, and would wear them each day to indicate her marital status.
Coming-of-age ceremonies were an occasion for young women to dance in many strands of beads.
Mothers of twins wore special amulets that celebrated the magical power of twins. Jewelry was a biography that could be read and a community standard that united villages and peoples.
Modern African pieces still remain true to the same historic values and meanings of the past. If you go a gallery and look at various pieces of jewelry, be it old or new, you will notice several common themes on display: a couple, a woman and child, a male with either a weapon or an animal and an outsider or stranger. These themes represent different elements of African culture and reveal the importance of each piece of jewelry, which in turn makes them so special to collectors and art lovers everywhere.