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Origin and History of Pearls in Africa

The History of Pearls in Africa

By CosCom WritersPublished 5 years ago 8 min read

Around 2,400 BC, the Egyptians already produced glass beads. In ancient Egypt, the most sought-after jewelry was stone, serpentine, agate, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and other semi-precious stones were then used as pearls. Later, the work of silica will produce pearls cheaper than stones and control shapes and colors.

To color pearls, the first glass craftsmen then used copper oxide to obtain turquoise blue coloring or manganese oxide to obtain purple or black shades imitating amethyst or agate. The techniques of quantity production date back to some 2,200 years before our era.

Some craftsmen perpetuate old techniques to make pearls of excellent quality: Clay paste dyed with earth-based dyes is stretched around stems to form tubes cut into small pieces to dry on trays. Once they are dry, remove the stem and bake the beads on metal plates. This manufacturing method takes advantage of local resources by relying solely on craftsmanship. These pearls allow compositions close to those represented on the frescoes of the Egyptian tombs.

Jewelry: Ethnic Maasai

The Maasai are nomadic pastoralists established between Kenya and Tanzania. Their high stature allows them to always wear very rich outfits: jewelry, animal skins, imposing headdresses... which testify to their courage, their status, or their victories. Since the eighteenth century, the Maasai women have made particularly colorful jewelry from barley beads.

The embroidery of pearls of the nomadic people are recognized by the language: Maasai of rigid leather, aluminum, or bone, interposed between the rows of pearls in the necklaces or the pieces of leather which serve as a support for the geometric mosaics of the heavy loops. Ears are worn only by married women. Each color has a meaning: Blue, for example, evokes God and heaven; green evokes peace and vegetation. Early works did not use yellow and orange pearls, which did not appear until much later.

The Maasai have maintained their traditions. During their lives, men go through different stages, marked by grandiose ceremonies in which they wear beautiful trimmings: embroidered shirts, knife sleeves, gourds, snuff boxes, etc. At these ceremonies, women also wear an accumulation of pearl ornaments indicating their rank, age, and clan.

The Story of the Pearls of Kenya

The people of Kenya are particularly specialized in the operation of two kinds of beads: the old beads of ostrich eggs and modern beads of bone complexion.

Ostrich egg pearls have been known in Kenya for a very long time: the shell is cut into small fragments, which are pierced to put on and polish together to give them the same shape. They are used both in jewelry and sewn on clothes or woven. They embellished the capes and skirts of leather and associated garments with cowries on the public aprons; they were an emblem of fertility. Circles of pearls on the capes of the girls indicated their celibacy, their skirts being adorned with shells.

The History of Pearl Trade Routes in Africa

Africa is a continent of contrasts: Its vegetation ranges from deserts to rainforests, high mountains to Savannah. Peoples, too, are very different, ranging from hunting tribes to the most advanced societies.

Despite the natural barriers of deserts and jungle, domestic and coastal trade routes have historically linked these areas, which otherwise might have remained largely isolated.

Already in 2300 BC, the Egyptians were trading from the ports of the Red Sea and overland to West Africa and South Sudan to retrieve the gold.

The Phoenicians established counters on the Mediterranean, where they made and sold pearls. The Berbers, from northwestern Africa, opened trade routes across the Sahara to Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. When the Romans invaded Africa, they took control of the trade routes and introduced camels to the Berbers, which helped them expand their trade network. With the Arab conquest of the Maghreb in 705 and the rise of Islam, trade spread throughout the region then spread from Spain to the extreme south of Mali.

In the mid-fifteenth century, the current Mali extended its influence in the Savannah, the Niger River being used as a means of transport. Indian pearls and cowries then crossed the Sahara from the east coast.

For nearly 2,000 years, Arab and Indian traders bartered on the eastern coast of Africa. During the Roman period, glass beads from the Mediterranean basin arrived in China and Korea. The glass beads in southern India became the most important trading item in the Pacific area. In the Middle Ages, Islam spread its doctrine and trade to Pakistan, selling and trading pearls from various sources throughout the region. Glass and ceramic beads from Persia were imported in East and West Africa until partway through the ninth century. Winds from the Indian Ocean, with trade winds and monsoon winds blowing in the opposite direction, allowed ships to travel back and forth each year.

In southern Africa, despite the dangerous navigation, the trade of pearls, exchanged for gold, developed strongly. The goods entered Africa through the ports and then entered the interior thanks to the people who resold them. The crossing of all these roads, both terrestrial and maritime, all around Africa, explains the dispersion of pearls throughout the continent.

In the sixteenth century, Europeans began to travel the west coast of Africa. The Portuguese were the first. They wanted to delight the Arab gold market and find a sea route to India. Soon joined by the French, the Dutch, the Germans, and the English, they established commercial forts along the coast, in which they brought manufactured goods, including pearls.

The History of Zulu Pearls

The Zulu kingdom, which stretches the north-east of the southern coast of Africa, was founded at the beginning of the 19th century by King Shaka. Continuing the work of his immediate predecessors, he succeeded in uniting the scattered tribes into a strong nation to fight against European colonialism.

The trade beads flowed regularly in the area. For centuries, Arab traders bartered along the eastern coast to Delagoa Bay, exchanging glass beads from India, Egypt, and Syria for slaves, ivory, and gold. Land routes were opened by the natives to distribute the goods.

At the same time the Portuguese then the Dutch and the British were looking west for shipping routes for the spice trade. They exchanged pearls and various goods for fresh food for the crews.

Arriving from both east and west, the pearls have largely "invaded" all of southern Africa. King Shaka appreciated them so much that he decreed a right of expiry on any new model of imported pearls. All the pearls were delivered to him before he distributed them to reward his soldiers or to honor some of his favorites. He exercised a strict control over all the work of the pearls, as well as in the style of the patterns and the choice of colors.

Pearls were not only ornaments, but also honorary decorations that marked the social rank and indicated the merits of the people who wore them.

The Zulu have invented a true language of pearls to convey different messages, each color having a meaning: White means the purity of love, black at night, pink poverty, green fertility, blue sky... Some pearls also indicated the age, sex, family status, social status, etc. of the wearer. Arranged according to a code in the familiar objects, they transmitted real messages. The most famous were the little signs hanging on the necklace, made by the young girls who then offered them to the chosen of their heart. The boy offered loose beads to the girl's girlfriends, the object finished transmitting a message coded by the arrangement, the colors and the nature of the pearls. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, pearls became essentially a means of communication between lovers. The various embroidery techniques were elaborated in court by women and girls who spread them throughout the kingdom when they moved to settle elsewhere after their marriage.

Only after the disappearance of the Zulu kings and under the influence of the Europeans did the work of the pearls diversify, each tribe being able to give free rein to its creativity.

Nowadays, the tradition of pearls is still very much alive, especially in dance uniforms or for events where traditional costume is required. On the other hand, pearl ornaments are a significant source of income for women who made them and sell them during these events.

The Story of Ndebele's Pearls

The territory of the Ndéblés, close to that of the Zulus, is located straddling the north of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Women are known for their ankle and neck rings, which indicate their status as married women.

The Ndebele story is linked to resistance to Boers and deportations under apartheid in South Africa. This has strengthened the attachment to traditions and all forms of autonomy, of which women are the main guarantors. They are the ones who decorate the houses with magnificent geometric frescoes, whose motifs are found in the loincloths and braided or embroidered necklaces that made them famous. The small pearls are sewn on skins of goats or on canvas in geometric patterns similar to the paintings that adorn the houses. While boys are exiled to the mountains after circumcision, girls are introduced to painting and pearls.

Ndebele: South Africa

The traditional pieces are characterized by very large surfaces of white pearls dotted with small geometric patterns of color. The works of pearls have a social function and correspond to very specific types of adornment, and the way of wearing them is a function of the different stages of women's lives. Thus, a beaded fringe apron identifies a girl, that of a teenager is made of leather or canvas decorated with geometric patterns symbolizing her transition from adolescence to adulthood, while the aprons of married women are embellished a central fringe and lateral rectangles.

For some ceremonies, the young Ndebele women adorn their necks and ankles with large beaded bracelets in order to arouse the marriage proposals and highlight their beauty.

For the wedding, the bride wears a five-finger ritual apron, characteristic of this culture, and a cape entirely covered with pearls, as well as a veil of pearls that hangs to the ground.

Another element of the traditional costume is a back apron worn by mature women. It is made of a piece of leather suspended from a thick roll of pearl-lined grass, under which is a horizontal panel of pearls. On weddings, the Ndebele also make fertility dolls to symbolize the perpetuation of their traditional values. These dolls are made of a cone composed of superimposed rings evoking traditional ritual bracelets.


About the Creator

CosCom Writers

Cosmas Nwokafor

Founder, CosCom Inc.

In addition to serving as a senior writer for CosCom Writers, Cosmas Nwokafor is a photographer, a journalist, editor, freelance writer and a novelist who is passionate about telling creative stories.

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