The patterns and colours of African jewellery provide a window into the various cultures and traditions.
This is evident in the individual and diverse patterns, forms and shapes of the beaded jewellery worn by East Africa’s Masai and Samburu, who use basic materials of tiny glass or porcelain beads. On the other hand, the Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa people of South Africa produce unique patterns to create culturally distinctive forms of beaded jewellery. Thus, beaded jewellery denotes the unique identity of each culture.
Most of the beadwork and beaded jewellery in eastern and southern Africa is worn by all members of society. However, in the Yoruba culture of Nigeria and Cameroon in West Africa, the wearing of such beadwork is reserved for members of royalty.
Westerners, upon seeing Masai, Samburu and Ndebele people dress in their traditional regalia, could be forgiven for thinking that there was some special event taking place. However, this would not be the case as this beaded jewellery is worn as the norm.
Certainly, some beaded jewellery pieces are worn on specific occasions, such as marriage and circumcision ceremonies. However, most pieces are worn throughout an entire stage of life. As such, they can be a “life–map” illustrating a person’s direction and status, such as increasing wealth or place in life. A married woman amasses beaded necklaces as she grows older, each piece telling of the wearer’s culture by the shape, patterns and colours. Within a certain culture, a woman’s age group, marital status, even whether she has given birth to a son—can be ascertained by observing her beaded jewellery.