The Mysterious Beauty of Berber Jewelry
There is something oddly curious about Berber jewelry. It has the rare intensity that captivates instantly. But as electric as it is, it transcends the visual. Perduring through centuries of geopolitical conquests and colonization, it survived the test of time and it stands as a cultural symbol of its community. And more than adornment, it’s about empowerment.
THE HISTORY OF BERBERS
Berber is a commonly used term for the self-named Amazigh or Imazighen (plural), meaning “free people”. They are indigenous inhabitants of North Africa or today’s territories of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. Traditionally nomadic people, many are settled along Atlas Mountains, Sahara, and other rural areas, but with time some migrated into the urban regions too.
Berbers lived on this land since 2000 BC and their jewels are just as bygone. A true piece of art, the depth of Berber jewelry gives it a layer of mystery that adds to its charm.
THE USE AND MEANING OF BERBER JEWELRY
As it’s the case with many tribes, jewelry is more than just an ornament. It is a part of the economic trade and an indication of social status. And while all this is true for Berbers too, it stretches further.
More than anything else, Berber jewelry is about women’s empowerment. It’s their way of connecting and supporting each other. There are several examples. One is a picture taken in the 1930s of women creating a circle around a woven cloth holding tangerines. Each wrist has several bracelets and fingers are stacked with rings. The image speaks of unity; not decoration. It’s a moving illustration of comradeship.
Furthermore, Berber jewelry serves as a woman’s protection through hardships. A bride is gifted jewelry as a dowry to use in case of unexpected events such as becoming widowed. Jewelry becomes her purchasing power and means to sustain her family. It’s a woman’s gateway to independence and preservation.
MATERIALS USED IN BERBER JEWELRY
Traditionally Berber jewelry is made of silver. It is believed that silver represents purity since it resembles white color. This, and the availability of the material in the region, are two main reasons why this is the case. Morocco alone is a top 20 global silver producer. Today, there is some gold jewelry sold in cities’ souks but it’s a rather modernized version of the orthodox Berber jewelry.
Depending on the tribe, Berber jewelry uses stones such as coral, lapis, and amber along with beautifully colored enamel giving it a vibrant and imposing look. One very good example of this is Kabyle jewelry of the Kabylie region in Alegria. Chaoui tribe, on the other hand, opts for plain silver and is known for its engraving techniques and filigree work. But one thing can be said of all Berber jewelry regardless of the tribe is that it is quite sizeable, symbolic, and particularly striking.
SYMBOLISM IN BERBER JEWELRY
It’s not uncommon to encounter symbolic themes in tribal adornment and Berber jewelry is no exception. In fact, it’s packed with cultural symbolism. Some of those are described below.
Fibulae is a triangularly shaped jewelry piece usually in a form of a pin, broach, or pendant. It’s practical as much as it’s meaningful. The triangle represents a woman, or fertility more specifically, and therefore home and family. It is one of the most recognizable and ever-present symbols in Berber jewelry.
And speaking of fertility, another important symbolic jewel is the tasfift; an elaborate headpiece consisting of dangly coins worn by a woman on her wedding day. It has a rooster or chicken on the tip of the head promoting bride’s abundance. It’s an absolute statement and such a fancy ornament.
Khamsa, also known as the Hand of Fatima, is a palm-shaped talisman that guards against evil and malice. A common symbol in Islamic and Jewish faiths, it was introduced to Berbers by Arabs that invaded North Africa in the 7th century. Besides jewelry, it can also be attached to door knocks for home protection.
Agadez, or the southern cross, is another powerful symbol in Berber jewelry. This type of amulet is native to Tuareg tribes; a large Berber ethnic confederation located mainly in the Sahara Desert. The pendant has four arms extended like a cross with the upper arm ending in a ring, through which a string is entered to hold it around the neck. The four arms symbolize the four cardinal directions, protecting and orienting its wearer in the vast desert region.
BERBER JEWELRY IN TODAY’S FASHION WORLD
With all its visual appeal and astounding emotional power, it’s not a surprise worldly designers found a way to incorporate Berber Jewelry into contemporary fashion. The pioneer of this was Yves Saint Laurent.
Born in Oran, Algeria, and with residence in Marrakech, Morocco – both French colonies at the time – Saint Laurent was greatly inspired by Berber culture growing up. His unforgettable “Berber Women of Morocco” collection was an international success, to the point that it earned him a museum. In 2017 Yves Saint Laurent museum was inaugurated in Marrakech in honor of a legendary designer. It exhibits more than 600 Berber items from his collection.
Gucci is another fashion giant who embraced Berber jewelry in its spring/summer 2019 Cruise collection and celebrated it across runways.
It’s hard to find concluding words for Berber jewelry. Somehow it escapes the definition. It immortalizes specific time and place, people and events. Yet it’s a timeless art. It has a presence but it’s elusive. It’s a living contrast. It’s an art in all its glory!
Until next time,