The Maasai are a pastoral people who measure their wealth by cattle ownership. They live and herd their cattle in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are most well-known for their spectacular beaded jewellery, which is made by the Maasai women.
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Before 1900, the Maasai used natural materials like seeds, leather and sisal to make their jewellery. After the turn of the twentieth century the Maasai started trading with Europeans and obtained the colourful glass seed beads that they use today. The seed beads are commonly fastened with sisal thread, leather or wire.
Colour and pattern are very important in Maasai bead jewellery. There are rules that have to be followed or an artist may risk ridicule from her fellow women. Patterns must be bold yet balanced and esthetically pleasing. There are primary and secondary colours that are used. The primary colours according to the Maasai are red, white, blue, green and orange. Secondary colours are yellow and black. Primary and secondary colours must never be mixed together in a pattern.
Each colour used in Maasai jewellery has meaning attached to it. Black is the colour of the people and it represents the hardships that all people go through. Red is the colour of bravery and strength and symbolises the blood of the cattle when they are slaughtered. Green symbolises the grass that feeds the cows and represents health for the people. Blue is for the sky that brings water to cattle and people alike. Yellow and orange represent hospitality as they are the colours of a cow skin blanket and a gourd respectively, things that the Maasai would offer guests. White is like the milk of a cow and is holy and pure to the Maasai, it also represents health as milk is a mainstay of the Maasai diet.
Types of Jewelry
The Maasai richly adorn themselves with beaded jewellery and cover themselves virtually from head to toe. Married women wear many layers of beaded necklaces in great hoops around their necks. Girls, warriors and older men wear many long necklaces, earrings, anklets and layers of bangles on their arms. There are also very special hoop necklaces with knee length dangles for brides. These are greatly treasured and kept as mementos.
The Maasai make and wear jewellery for beauty, symbolism and as a sign of their status. It is also made and given away for special occasions such as a wedding, a successful lion hunt, an engagement or as a celebration of a rite of passage.
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