Recognised for its beautiful natural colours, strong shapes, detail and spiritual significance, handmade African jewellery remains stylish and highly sought after all over the world. Jewellery from this continent began thousands of years ago in Egypt, and over the years evolved from beads crafted from eggs and other simple materials to working with metals, stones, glass and other materials that symbolised wealth and spiritual standing in a tribe or African community.
The earliest handcrafted beads found in Africa date to more than 75,000 years ago. Creating jewellery hundreds of years before their counterparts in Europe, the Middle East and America, African artisans get the credit for producing the world's first jewellery.
Egypt was the first country to produce a large variety of beads, with beadwork in Egypt dating back to 2200 B.C. Using various natural materials, artisans carved beads not only for necklaces, but attached beadwork to decorate linen and papyrus as well as belts, aprons and sandals. Egyptians produced jewellery using a technique that threaded single beads together by hand rather than using a loom. This handmade process made each jewellery piece different from the next with great attention to colour, design and durability.
During the 15th century, artists in Nigeria (then called the Kingdom of Benin) developed beads made of stone. At the bequest of Oba Eware the Great, the ruler of Benin, craftsmen and women carved stone beads for the royal court. According to the Trade Beads of Africa website, stone beads were considered so precious and important in the Benin kingdom that no chief was allowed to visit Oba (the king) unless he wore bead necklaces; if he lost them, he could be punished by death. The king's beaded wardrobe developed with new varieties of beads and jewelery up to the 17th century, when the royal court wore costumes exclusively made of coral and stone beads including skirts, shirts and crowns.
When European explorers and traders arrived in West Africa in the early 15th century, they noted an abundance of gold jewellery, beaded necklaces and bracelets worn by all of the African people. Europeans bartered with Africans for glass beads in exchange for incense, ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn, palm and coconut oils, and gold from other regions of the world.
According to the Black History Pages, a website describing African and African-American traditions, Africans wore beads to express rank, stances on religion, politics and artistic attitudes, and also used them as currency. Cowrie shells--small, smooth, freckled shells--were the most popular currency in Africa. Egyptians regarded the shells as magical agents and used them when bartering with foreigners. Archeologists have excavated millions of them in the tombs of the Pharaohs. The Europeans were especially astonished that the Africans preferred cowrie shells to gold coins. Valued for their durability and their shape (thought to symbolise female fertility), owrie shells have a long history in African trade and jewellery-making.
African artisans first used animal teeth, shells and eggs to create necklaces, crowns, bracelets, rings and so on. Other natural materials developed into jewelery include bronze, copper and gold as well as precious and semiprecious stones such as turquoise, lapis lazuli, sapphires, rubies and emeralds. While diamonds were plentiful in the country, Africans typically did not value them as much because they were colourless.
Archeologists have found beads and beaded necklaces buried with kings and chiefs in ancient African graves. Owning and wearing old African jewellery is believed to provide hope, wisdom and well-being to its owner.
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