Africa is widely regarded as the home of much of the world’s culture, but did you know that it was the first place where jewelry was constructed and worn by humans? The elaborate art of crafting jewelry by hand dates back to over 75,000 years ago. After a visit to Blombos’, a cave situated in South Africa, Archaeologists discovered pea-sized snail shells which were used as beads by ancient African civilizations in the area. Over in East Africa, 40,000 year old beads which were made from perforated ostrich eggs have also been discovered. As with many aspects of life, including the very composition of the modern human, Africa has once again proven itself to be the true core of modern society. Fast forward to today, as well as jewelry brands like Cartier and Rolex forming huge parts of pop culture; jewelry is particularly popular amongst women, who choose to bedeck themselves in the most elegant pieces they can find. Here at Afro Indie, whilst we’re all about timeless elegance with a boisterous twist, our inspiration will always stem from the beautiful craftsmanship and ancient designs of various cultures around the world. Sit back and relax, we’re about to take you through a history of African Handcrafted Jewellery...
Just like with many other walks of life, the Ancient Egyptian civilization provides an amazing starting point when taking an odyssey into African jewelry. Egyptian jewelers typically went with turquoise, gold, silver, chalcedony, and amethyst. The Egyptians were largely motivated by symbolism in color, and believe me, jewelry was no exception to this! An amazing example of this symbolism at work was that the Egyptians believed that the color red was a symbol of wealth and status, which can be still seen in modern day depictions of famous Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, whose crown is often drawn embellished with red gemstones at either side. The colors yellow and gold were heavily associated with the sun, so gemstones and metals which incorporated these colors were routinely used when crafting jewelry for the Pharaoh and those close to him.
Another hugely important symbol in Ancient Egypt was the ankh, often referred to as the ‘key of life, and having connotations of eternal life, the hieroglyphic symbol was often welded into jewelry as a sacred ornament of protection. Today, the ankh is very much incorporated into society, go to any mainstream online store, and chances are, you’ll find an ankh-embellished set of earrings or an ankh pendant. However, if you ask us, casually wearing the ankh, (which is a holy symbol within Egyptian culture) as nothing more than a fashion statement 100% falls within the boundaries of cultural appropriation, so you want to be careful with this one!
Aside from just the Egyptians, Early jewelry crafters used organic readily available materials that were sourced from their respective regions to create skillful designs. As time moved on, African craftsmen perfected and improved their jewelry making techniques, and the uses of jewelry expanded heavily. Jewelry began to come in many forms and was used for a number of functions besides bodily adornment.
In fact, today, we still see jewelry being used as decorative items used to keep the hair in place, or better yet, a symbol of the power and prestige of an individual in society. Without a doubt, early African jewelry mirrors certain cultural trends in modern-day Africa, In Benin during the 15th century (which is modern-day Nigeria) coral beads which had been traded by Portuguese settlers were integrated into necklaces, this tradition has made its way all the way to the present, with tons of tribes along (and close to) the coast of Nigeria still wearing coral beads for special occasions like weddings and baby naming ceremonies.
Ancient Africans have also utilized jewelry for ancient rituals and ceremonies. Here is where we first began to see jewelry being used to represent the union of marriage and partnership. In the Saharan communities, jewelry was used as a sort of currency, back then, you could use jewelry to buy crops such as rice, vegetables, wheat, and salt. Needless to say, the boundaries of jewelry expanded way further than enhancing beauty, and actually formed a huge part of early African civilizations, helping to mold a society rich in culture.
In Western society today, whilst we may see jewelry as nothing more than an accessory, it goes way beyond that. With the unfaltering dominance of capitalism in the World today, material possessions have become much more than just material, the Rolex for example, serves as an accessory, but also a show of power, and believe it or not, an investment, with some watches appreciating in value on the resale market. The Cartier ‘Love’ collection has the same effect, with the collection appreciating in value by over 3% each year. The system that has been adopted in the world of luxury jewelry today undeniably mirrors the shift towards jewelry as a currency that was seen in Early Africa.
Ultimately, you can always see the influence of Early African jewelry reflected in some of your favorite contemporary jewelry retailers and designers. Though we are all about adorning ourselves in the finest intricate and ornately designed accessories, our mission goes much further than this element of jewelry. Connecting women of color to their roots and encouraging them to embrace their heritage through fashion is hugely important to us. In order for us to get there in terms of education on our jewelry, we must first explore its origin, which is why we care so much about sharing the heritage with our sisters across the world. Whilst education is important, we also acknowledge the significance of recognizing that we all come from royalty, and despite the odds appearing to be stacked against us, resilience, strength, and power runs through our DNA and this is what makes us worthy to hold the honorable title and be acknowledged as a QUEEN.