• Laila Jewayni

Tuareg Traditions & Unique African Jewelry Design

Updated: Jan 23, 2020

Tuareg jewelry represents some of the most iconic and symbolic handcrafted African jewelry that exists today. The pieces are enchanted with geometric & hand-engraved lines - where metal meets engraving tool - to tell a story of the Tuareg experience. Storytelling through art is a cultural tradition for this semi-nomadic tribe, and - since they have been walking across the Sahara for generations - is clearly reflected in their jewelry.

Though they are skilled in many crafts, Tuareg people are extraordinary silversmiths and produce some of the most unique silver jewelry in the world. One look at any of their pieces and you’ll understand why! I remember the first time I laid eyes on a Tuareg Cross in Kenya: I instantly gravitated towards it. It was so unique and its story resonated with me so deeply that I bought it immediately.

When Slow Fashion Meets Local Artisans

Djibrila, one of the artisans working with Äyna Jewelry, began training as a metalsmith as a young boy, observing and learning from the elders in his family. Over the years, he learned how to melt, forge and finish metal and eventually became a “master artisan”. Traditionally, once a Tuareg artisan completes his apprenticeship, he is typically given an anvil stake and a hammer by his father (or an uncle). It can then take up to a further 15 years to be fully trained in the 'Art of Stamping' and considered a master artisan!

Tuareg jeweler in Senegal
The design process at a workshop in Senegal

The Tuareg have an array of jewelry design styles, and among African jewelers, some of the most diverse uses of materials and techniques. Hand-engraving and stamping are most often used to represent their environment in bold, yet simplistic designs. In Senegal, they also use ebony wood and embed it in silver with precise sawing and hammering.

Their tool kit is very simple and consists of an anvil stake pounded into the ground, a hammer, and homemade tools for engraving and stamping. This simple toolkit allows them to travel light and create pieces wherever they go. As featured in the picture above, it's interesting to see that even when outward appearances seem westernised, the heart of the tradition has stood the test of time: Very little has changed regarding how jewelry is made, the tools that are used, and the message each piece conveys.

Symbolic Meanings Give Purpose To Fashion

Tuareg artisans typically work with silver which is part of every family history as it holds both symbolic as well as real value. For instance, the Tuareg Cross is passed down from father to son at age 14. Although the cross can be interpreted in many different ways (such as a means of warding off evil, or as a tool to navigate across the Sahara), it is most often said to represent the four corners of the world and signifies that the young man is free to travel wherever he wishes.

Each piece of handcrafted jewelry has symbolic meaning and can be used as a tool to communicate messages or significant life events. These messages and historical symbols are often passed down from generation to generation: Some interpretations of these symbols are explained below:

This symbol illustrates the triangular-shaped turban or veil used to cover the face and shield the eyes when traveling across the Sahara Desert.

Y This symbol represents the wooden Y shaped stands where mats could be placed to store clothes and food safely away from animals.

///////// This design symbolizes the movement of the wind on the sand in the Sahara Desert. A desert guide follows the direction of the lines in the sand to avoid walking directly into the wind.

Every piece of Tuareg jewelry tells a story of culture and tradition. It’s a story of master craftsmanship and the collective pride in passing down meaningful art. A story of the experiences across and beyond the Sahara, as well as the adventure that goes with it. A story of a father and a son - of a woman and her child. This is the beauty of Tuareg jewelry.

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