One of many forms of adornment used among the Eastern and African communities, beadwork is arguably the most popular. With the arrival of vibrant coloured beads from Europe in the 19th century, African jewellery underwent a vast transformation. Gone were the bone, wood and ostrich eggshell materials that had historically been so vital in creating ornaments. African communities had now developed a new way of crafting the pieces that would later play such an important role in the social life of their people.
The techniques of crafting jewellery and ornaments varied between communities, with the Masai, Zulu, Samburu and many more increasingly adopting beadwork as a way of distinguishing an individual’s gender, status and stage in life.
With over forty words in the Masai language for types of beaded decoration, these adornments play an integral role in the tribe’s culture. Resembling collars in halo shapes and worn only by those of marriageable age, women’s Masai jewellery appears stiff and flat, hand-crafted by threading beautiful glass beads onto fine wire.
The headdresses worn by these Masai women consist of three or more strings of beads encircling their traditionally shaven heads. An aigrette, crafted from these beads is often worn from the front of the headdress to the back of the skull. The uniform is completed with delicate strings of beads worn around the wrists, creating armlets.
Masai men too wear this form of African jewellery, enabling them to differentiate between social status among their tribe. While warriors will adorn themselves with colourful bead ornaments draping across their chest, the elder men wear snuff containers around their neck, crafted with beads and gifted to them by their eldest daughters.
In Kenya, the Samburu similarly use beadwork to identify between social status. A Samburu man will adorn himself suitably depending on whether he is a youth, a warrior, an elder or a priest. Women too must dress to demonstrate whether they are a virgin, a marriageable girl, a mother, the mother or a warrior or an old woman.
These Samburu women wear collections of beads around their necks and shoulders to create a tall collar. Allowing the head to appear as though it has been lifted, these collars, made from thousands of small, single coloured glass beads, are worn to direct attention to their faces. A Samburu woman without this beaded dress is said to be naked.
African cultures often use this beadwork as an appropriate form of dress. Ndebele people are renowned for their beaded aprons, carefully crafted in symbolic geometric designs. Young girls begin with a small beaded apron which increases in size as the girl grows up. When the young girl reaches marriageable age, her apron is replaced with a new, larger piece.
The Ndebele people also adorn their bodies with large, beading rings made by threading hundreds of beads onto an iron or straw core. These rings are worn on the hips, arms and legs and are used to imitate rolls of fat, which the tribe perceived as attractive.
At Lalibella, beadwork has always been a fascinating form of African Jewellery. With its historical origins, symbolic meanings and its timeless versatility, we love working beautifully crafted beading into both our outfits and our homes. Visit our Lalibella Jewellery page for more inspiration.
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