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History of Tribal Jewelry

Mrunal Belvalkar Mar 4, 2020
Modern contemporary jewelry designs may at times take on the form of tribal jewelry. However, little is known to us about how tribal jewelry came into existence and what it meant to the tribal people.
Jewelry is any ornament or artifact worn to adorn and beautify the human body. Much contradictory to popular belief, jewelry is not just for the female kind. Traditionally, jewelry was also worn by men. This has to do with the fact that along with being used as a means to embellish our bodies, jewelry was also worn to display wealth in the olden times.
Jewelry was also, in fact, used for trade. Jewelry meant currency in ancient times. Jewelry has also long been used to declare status or membership to a certain group or religion. All these meanings of jewelry have been passed on from our ancestors to us, so that even today beautifully crafted jewelry is a sign of wealth.
Jewelry can be sold for money which can buy you things, and it helps you declare your marital status (as with the Western wedding ring or the Indian Mangalsutra).
In ancient times, many tribes all over the world made and used jewelry for many purposes. Different tribes from different parts of the world - Egypt, India, Africa, America - used different material to make jewelry and had different uses of it as well. Here is an account of the tribal jewelry history.

History of Tribal Jewelry

The Tribal people were a lot less fancy than us, if I may say so! Jewelry immediately brings to the mind pictures of artifacts made from such materials as gold, platinum, silver, diamonds, emeralds and rubies. However, tribal jewelry is far different from the imagery of jewelry that we have in our minds. It was made from far simpler materials, even the tendons of animals! However, it was definitely a lot more elaborate.

~ Material ~

Tribal jewelry was usually made of materials such as animal bones, teeth, ivory, stones, semi-precious stones, shells, wood and other such natural materials found around their habitats. Even dried berries or seeds of fruits were used to make jewelry.
Egg shells are probably one of the oldest materials to be used. Jewelry was usually made by stringing these materials together and fastening the strung beads around various body parts - the wrists, ankles, neck, waist etc.
Animal sinew (or tendon) was used to 'string' the elements together. Elephant hair jewelry provides another example of using animal body parts to make jewelry.

~ Elements ~

The elements of tribal jewelry always had some significance apart from being aesthetic. Usually elements of nature were depicted in the designs of tribal jewelry. The sun was most commonly worshiped and revered by different tribal people all over the world. Many instances of the sun being depicted in jewelry have been found.
Another common element of tribal jewelry was depictions of different gods and deities. Byzantine cross, ankh have all been found in different jewelry pieces too, typically as pendants. Finally, animals and birds were also sometimes represented in jewelry, like deer, eagle, etc.

~ Designs ~

Apart from the elements of design discussed above, most tribal jewelry consisted of abstract designs. Concentric circles (or even spirals) were quite common.
Geometric shapes and patterns were also quite common. However, engraved semi-precious stones bearing human figures and portraits have also been discovered, dating as long back as circa 600 B.C.
Jewelry was also heavily layered. For example, a necklace would usually have more than a single string. This was particularly so because jewelry was a sign of wealth.
Apart from a single piece of jewelry being layered, more than a single piece of jewelry was also worn together - more than a couple of necklaces, several bracelets, etc.

~ Significance ~

⇲ A form of currency
⇲ Used to trade for different goods and services
⇲ A form of storing wealth
⇲ Symbolized wealth and material possessions
Apart from the above common uses, jewelry also had some uncommon and unconventional uses. Like, did you know that there existed such a thing as 'slave beads'?
Slave beads have been found by the masses, usually dating back to circa 16th century.
These beads (also known as trade beads) were used to barter for human slaves. They were widely used across Africa, Latin America and Europe. Jewelry was also worn as a means to control or change or induce the shape of certain body parts.
One such example is of gold neck rings worn by Kayan women. Girls usually start wearing these rings at the age of 5 years and continue wearing them through their life. Having a long slender neck was considered to be a sign of beauty in the olden times, giving rise to this custom of wearing neck rings to elongate the neck.

Tribal Jewelry Today

If you keenly study tribal and vintage jewelry you will notice that some of the major traits of tribal jewelry are that it is big, bulky, with prominent designs, but that the designs and patterns essentially lack fineness as well as finesse. Tribal jewelry is, hand in hand with the cliché, 'bold and beautiful'.
Tribal inspired jewelry available now tries to mimic the same crudeness as was seen in tribal jewelry; and the best part is, it is not just for the fairer sex - even men can wear tribal jewelry. There is also a growing curiosity about the different significance of tribal jewelry, especially the spiritual meanings.
For example, many tribes are known to have the custom of burying the dead with their personal jewelry as it was a sign of wealth and prosperity. On the other hand many talismans, charms, amulets were worn by tribal people to ward off evil spirits. Such kind of symbolism has greatly invaded and captured jewelry designing, including tribal jewelry designs.
Tribal jewelry history is indeed fascinating. It had a totally different style and meaning to it than what we think of when we think of jewelry today. However, 'history' has always fascinated us, and so have our ancestors and their ways of life. I guess if they were looking down upon us, they would be proud to see the legacy they created through tribal jewelry to be still alive and cherished to this day...