For millennia North Africa, including the nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt, has served as a crossroads for the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. Starting well before the Christian era, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and Greeks mingled with the Amazigh peoples. Also known as Berbers, they are thought to be the original inhabitants of the region, along with Africans from south of the Sahara Desert.
In the elaborate jewelry worn by North African women, a profusion of pendants, colored enamels and precious or semi-precious stones transform the pieces into flamboyant and conspicuous works of art. Women receive jewelry from their husbands when they marry, and they wear them as symbolic expressions of social codes and identity. In certain shapes and materials, jewelry is seen as a way to protect the wearer. The hand, or khamsa, is considered a potent shield against the evil eye.
In rural areas jewelry is generally made of silver and favors geometric form and decorations. Pieces crafted in urban settings and sometimes made of gold display floral, arabesque and rounded designs. Many jewelers in urban centers were descendants of Jews who fled Spanish persecution beginning in the 13th century. Itinerant jewelers worked in rural areas, where their techniques included casting, piercing, filigree work and enameling. Niello decoration lends a distinct black outline to patterns on silver jewelry. These techniques were inherited from Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine traditions.
The rich mixture of materials in North African jewelry reflects the varied cultures of the region’s inhabitants and their long history of extensive trade and contact. Imported materials from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe were lavishly combined with local materials of diverse color and form. It is not uncommon to find jewelry with elements, some more than two thousand years old, from Europe, India, ancient Egypt and Central Asia.
Necklace from the Draa Valley, Morocco
Used widely throughout Africa, beads have been imported and made locally for thousands of years. Beads of all shapes and sizes made of stone, coral, amber, glass, shell, old coins and later Bakelite and plastic buttons are combined in elaborate designs. These are often based on older jewelry forms handed down over generations. Amber, a fossilized resin imported into North Africa from the Baltic and beyond, was often strung with beads made of copal, a semi-fossilized resin found in West Africa. Gold and silver are metals of choice in North African jewelry. Because pure gold and silver were rare and restricted to the wealthy, most jewelers worked with alloys, sometimes made from melted coins, salvaged metal objects and discarded jewelry.
North African Niello Work
Many materials are thought to have protective and healing qualities as well as symbolic meaning. Silver is linked with honesty and purity, and when combined with certain stones it can heal select ailments. Red Mediterranean coral, associated with life-sustaining blood, is prized for its healing properties. It is worn to promote fertility and to prevent harm to children. Yellow amber attracts sunlight and deflects darkness.
The range of techniques also reflects the cosmopolitan history of the region. Jewish silversmiths living among the Kabyle of northern Algeria specialize in cloisonné enameling and also introduced niello. This technique, with Turkish and Central Asian origins, involves fusing silver, copper and lead to make a black powder that is then applied to a base layer of metal. Other techniques, such as filigree, granulation and engraving, suggest ties to areas as distant as Yemen, Syria and Somalia.
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