The Mysterious Beauty of Berber Jewelry

Berber Jewelry

There is something oddly curious about Berber jewelry.  It has this 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.

Berber women wearing Berber Jewelry

Berber women wearing Berber jewelry

 

THE USE AND MEANING OF BERBER JEWELRY

As it is 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 in the case of Berbers, it stretches further.

Above 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.  Their wrists have several bracelets and fingers are stacked with rings.  The image speaks of unity; not decoration.  It is a moving illustration of comradeship.

Berber Women of Morocco

Berber Women of Morocco

 

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 for instance.  Jewelry becomes her purchasing power and means to sustain her family.  Essentially, it’s a woman’s gateway to independence and preservation.

Berber Woman

Berber woman wearing tasfift and a Berber necklace

 

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 the two main reasons why this is the case.  Morocco alone is a top 20 global silver producer.  Today, there is gold Berber jewelry sold in cities’ souks as well, 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 it comes from, and that is that it’s quite sizeable, symbolic, and particularly striking.

Kabyle jewelry pendant

Kabyle pendant

 

Chaoui jewelry cuff

Chaoui cuff

 

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 the most common ones are described below.

Fibulae

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.

Fibulae Berber Jewelry

Fibulae

 

Tasfift

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 among other occasions.  If the occasion is, in fact, a wedding, it has a rooster or chicken on the tip of the head promoting bride’s abundance.  It’s an absolute statement and such a stunning ornament.

Tasfift Headpiece

Tasfift

 

Khamsa

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 conquered North Africa in the 7th century.  Besides jewelry, it can also be attached to door knocks for home protection.

Khamsa

Khamsa

 

Agadez

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.

Agadez

Agadez

 

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 an extent 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.

Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakesh, Morocco

Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakesh, Morocco

 

Inside of the YSL Museum, Women of Morocco collection

Inside of the YSL Museum, Women of Morocco collection

 

Women of Morocco, YSL Museum

Women of Morocco, YSL Museum

 

Women of Morocco, YSL Museum

Women of Morocco, YSL Museum

 

Gucci is another fashion giant who embraced Berber jewelry in its spring/summer 2019 Cruise collection and celebrated it across runways.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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 nonetheless.  It’s a living contrast.  It’s art in all its glory!

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Until next time,

Ileana

Ileana

Hi! I am Ileana Djujic, a jewelry designer, blogger, and founder of Foxy Pearl Jewelry. We create distinct timeless jewels and inform on various industry topics. Apart from jewelry, I am equally passionate about traveling, music, books, reading, writing, running, and chocolate. Thanks for stopping by and connecting with us.
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