Whether you prefer to think of them as charms or talismans, nearly every faith practiced around the globe has some affiliation with Coptic crosses. In ancient times, they were worn as a protective amulet, primarily to ward off evil and protect the wearer against injuries that might be inflicted by animistic spirits. To Christians, the Coptic cross is a symbol of their devout faith; the three points between each central right angle representative of the Holy Trinity, and the twelve combined symbolic of Jesus’ twelve chosen Apostles. The original Coptic cross derives from the Egyptian ankh symbol (also known as the “key of the Nile”), which is believed to represent the ideology of resurrection and eternal life.
The Ethiopian Coptic Cross is primarily a Christian symbol. It was first introduced to Ethiopia in the 5th Century by Egyptian Copts who, under threat of persecution from Arab-Muslims, fled to the safety of the mountains of north Ethiopia. Here they built their own settlements among the mountains, so they could freely and safely practice their faith without fear of persecution from the outside world. Each Coptic village created their own interpretation of the Coptic cross, and in doing so, made it possible to identify those from other villages or tribes.
Early Coptic cross designs comprised two straight lines of roughly equal length, one overlaid over the other horizontally at the center. Between the right angles where the lines intersect were a further three lines arranged to form a ‘T’, representing the three elements of the Holy Trinity. But, as the Egyptian Copts developed their silver-working skills, the cross designs became more intricate and complex with latticework, geometric carvings, and an even greater number of points. Today, the symbol has been adopted by many faiths and denominations around the world, each of whom have altered the original design to suit their own purposes.
Ethiopian Coptic Cross
What first comes to mind when you think of Kenya? For me, it has to be the beautiful, wild desert landscapes, and the sheer diversity of its endemic wildlife, both of which provide endless inspiration for my African jewelry creations. Surprisingly, many native tribal jewelry styles don’t reflect the rich natural heritage of the region; tribes such as the Maasai and Turkana rather better known for using glass beads to create elaborate hand stitched collars and identity cuffs. From bone and wood to shells and amber, here are just a few stylish Etsy finds that showcase Kenya’s beautiful natural elements. I hope they inspire you too!
Chocolate Orange Tribal Necklace – Tribalrockstar
Marrying the aged ebony brown of Kenyan bone beads with the rich honey hues of amber (faux in this case), this simple, yet striking necklace demonstrates the contemporary beauty that can be achieved using natural Kenyan beads.
Chocolate Orange Tribal Necklace. Tribalrockstar/ Etsy
Kenyan Bone, Bauxite and Boule Brass Necklace – SimonesBoutique
Five brown ‘flag’ Kenya bone beads make up the focal centerpiece of this stunning natural necklace; the mottled browns beautifully offset by the rust red of three tubular Bauxite beads on either side. The rounded Ostrich eggshell spaces add contrast to this simple design, drawing the eye to mottled colors of the natural beads, rather than the gorgeous brass Baoule accents.
Kenyan Bone, Bauxite and Brass Necklace. SimonesBoutique/ Etsy
Samburu Wood and Batik Bone Tribal Bracelet – SistasJewelry
A nod to the more simplistic styles of jewelry worn by the nomadic Samburu of Kenya’s Rift Valley, this charming tribal bracelet incorporates both bone and wood to bring out the beautiful contrast of focal Batik bone beads.
Samburu Wood and Batik Bone Bracelet. SistasJewelry/ Etsy
Maasai beaded jewelry is one of the most familiar visual examples of traditional African craftsmanship. From armbands and elaborate collars to large body aprons and bibs, the Maasai exploit glass beads for just about every kind of personal adornment you care to think of. But the shiny, opaque glass beads used in designs today weren’t quite so accessible prior to the 19th Century,. So, what did they use instead?
A historically nomadic tribe, the Maasai have long relied upon native, easy to source materials for clothing and bead adornments. Before the influx of brightly colored glass trade beads to Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, the resourceful Maasai would create their beads from mostly locally sourced, natural materials such as seeds, bone, ivory and shell.
The colors used in 19th century Maasai jewelry largely depended upon the kinds of raw materials locally available. As a rule, white beads were crafted from ivory, shell or bone; black beads from iron ore, charcoal and clay, and red beads from gourds, seeds or copper. Eventually, Maasai artisans began experimenting with plant dyes to create a broader spectrum of colors, and greater diversity in the representative color codes of clans and tribes.
Today, Maasai artisans incorporate nearly every conceivable color in their exuberant creations, however, there are strict rules about those that can be used side by side. Similar colors, such as orange and yellow, are rarely used alongside one another. Instead, they must be divided by a darker, contrasting field. The color system is essentially based on opposites. If there is red for war, there must be white for peace; if there is black for death or melancholy, there must be yellow or orange to represent sunlight, hope and happiness!
Traditional Maasai Ceremonial Collar. Mouser Williams/ Flickr
In a country where civil war and HIV continue to blight the lives of multiple generations, it seems inconceivable that something as simple as a metal bead has the power to change the fortunes of thousands. Founded by ethical fashionistas Kirsten Dickerson and Sophia Lin, the Raven+Lily project is one of several initiatives in Ethiopia geared toward empowering HIV positive women, ostracized by their communities, to develop their bead-making skills and build a better future for their families.
The company encourage farmers in Ethiopia to collect old artillery shells left behind from the war whilst plowing their land. Farmers are paid a fair price for the bullet casings, which are then transported to villagers in remote areas to be transformed into beads. Most artillery shells are made from brass or white metals, so the same method employed to create brass beads from pipes and other brass scrap is also used to smelt down bullet casings.
The smelted brass is poured into bead molds fashioned from clay, within which sits a wax model of the bead. As the molten brass is poured in, it adheres to the surface of the wax, which in turn gradually melts away during firing. When cool, the molds are broken open with a rock or similar heavy implement to release the beads. The beads are then washed several times to rid them of excess clay and impurities, before finally being polished with beeswax.
Raven+Lily is one of several companies who have established “direct trade partnerships” with bead cooperatives in Ethiopia to ensure they receive a fair wage for their products. Where previously impoverished women would have been bartered down by unscrupulous market traders, they are now earning a consistent wage that helps them to support themselves and their families.
Brass bullet casings similar to those found in Ethiopia. Wetsun/ Flickr
A landlocked country with a diverse topography of snow capped mountains, vast savannahs and glacial lakes, Uganda is often overlooked as a tourist destination. Sadly, the reputation of this stunning East African country has been blighted by conflict, civil war and genocide; the effects of which are still being felt among Akoli communities in the Northern Agago and Nwoya Districts. But, like the Krobo and Asante of Ghana in the 1990s, the proud Akoli are now fighting back against poverty and famine in their own right – with beads!
Records show that paper bead-making was a popular pastime among English ladies in the 19th Century, who would produce the beads from decorative wallpaper samples. It’s probable that Christian ambassadors introduced the technique to African tribes whilst carrying out missionary work across the continent, since there is evidence that certain tribes were producing recycled paper beads from the 1950s.
Years of civil unrest and political upheaval have had a measured impact upon the economic success of Uganda, and famine and drought issues have forced many tribespeople to look to other means of generating an income to support their families. Not for profit organizations, such as Bead For Life and Outreach Uganda, have been established to prevent bead artisans in Uganda from being exploited by Western companies, and make their crafts available to an international market.
Whilst there are many tribes who produce recycled paper beads in Uganda for international sale, it is the Nilotic speaking Akoli who are credited with producing the most ornate and beautiful. The vast majority of beads made by Akoli women are produced from old magazines and newspapers. The paper is cut down into small triangles, which are then coated in a transparent glue and hand rolled. Once the glue is dry, the beads are immersed into a liquid made up of plant resins several times to build up a glossy, waterproof outer skin. The beads are sold through approved online outlets affiliated with Bead For Lie and Outreach Uganda, guaranteeing fair wages for Uganda’s skilled bead artisans.
Small recycled paper beads made in Uganda to support orphans. Krissy Venosdale/ Flickr
Primitive and beautiful, the exquisite contrast of Kenyan Batik Bone Beads makes them a firm favorite among tribal jewelry designers. But, contemporary though they seem, these decorative cattle bone beads have a long and fascinating history intertwined with both the Javanese and ancient Egyptian cultures.
Long before it was adapted by Kenyans for decorative and spiritual adornments, Batik was used to produce ceremonial robes for high ranking Javanese and Egyptian aristocrats. The primary colors: indigo, brown and white, were associated with the Hindu gods Brahmā, Vishnu, and Śiva, while in Egypt, they were synonymous with royalty, status and wealth. The origins of this art-form are disputed, however, the earliest known examples of Batik cloth were found in various Egyptian tombs dating back to the 4th Century B.C.E. Batik cloth was also used to produce the shrouds for those of wealth and status, suggesting the ancient Egyptians produced Batik linens exclusively for those of noble or royal blood.
So, what does this have to do with Kenyan Batik Bone Beads?
Well, according to some sources, artisans in ancient Egypt began experimenting with wax-resist dyeing for a variety of other purposes – including the production of clay trade beads. Before the discovery of Batik, the Egyptians had been producing clay beads in abundance for use as currency with trans-Saharan traders. Early Egyptian clay beads looked much like the Spindle Whorl Beads produced in Mali today, decorated with spiritual symbols such as the Sun and Moon. The Egyptians discovered that, by using beeswax to create these designs on the surface of the beads, the indigo dye would not penetrate certain areas – and thus Batik Beads were born!
Circular Arrow Batik Bone Beads
To most of us, the huge, elaborate collars worn by the Maasai seem like nothing more than an extravagant means of asserting their individual status or style. That is, of course, until you discover just how pivotal a role beads play in Maasai culture.
Marriage in traditional Maasai society is a huge affair. Partners are usually selected by the mother of the bride, and once the match is agreed, she will begin creating the engagement necklaces which the betrothed couple will wear to announce the arrangement. Small glass beads are strung upon multiple strings of raffia or cord which are then plaited together. The intertwining of the strings represents the ‘life paths’ of two people becoming one.
The huge “inkarewa” collars worn by Maasai women on their wedding day aren’t just a decorative adornment worn to compliment their vibrant red wedding gowns. In many respects, they also tell the story of the bride’s upbringing and community. An inkarewa is a large, round beaded collar of approximately 12 inches wide, decorated with bold geometric shapes and fringing tipped with cowrie shells. At the front, a small beaded square hangs down from the center with several long strands of recycled glass beads hanging from it.
The inkarewa is usually made by the bride’s mother several months in advance of the ceremony. Each segment of the collar represents a facet of the bride’s past and community. Most collars are loosely based on a plan of the bride’s village, which are almost always circular in their arrangement. The outer beaded edge of the collar represents the outer fence of the village, followed by a series of geometric triangles to symbolize the layout of the houses. At the center of the collar is the neck hole, which is believed to symbolize the heart of the village where both cattle are kept, and ceremonies are conducted. The cowrie shells which dangle from the small square confirm the number of animals to be given by the groom (who pays the dowry, rather than the bride) to the bride’s family. A groom will usually knot the strands to confirm his agreement to the dowry payment, and his commitment to provide for his future bride.
Maasai women often congregate to bead the inkarewa together. World Bank Photo Collection/ Flickr
I’ve always wanted to visit Nairobi. Not just for the huge Maasai bead markets and rock bottom prices, but also to see how the glass Trade Beads I use in my own African-inspired jewelry creations are worn by Kenyan tribes, such as the Turkana. A Nilotic speaking people with long upheld traditions of wearing beads for communicative purposes, the Turkana have myriad of unspoken social rules regarding beads for self-adornment.
To me, the Turkana stand out almost as much as the Maasai for their use of beads in such great quantities; women in particular wearing so many strands around their necks at any one time, they often look weighed down by the sheer volume of their glass collars. It’s only when you dig a little deeper into the social values of the Turkana that you begin to understand these great collars of beads are a medium by which each woman communicates her family’s wealth, her fertility successes (children) and her marital status. They tell her story, and without them, she is considered to be without an identity in the eyes of fellow tribe members.
Turkana women wearing exuberant layered bead collars. Jeremy Weate/ Flickr
A Turkana woman’s relationship with glass beads begins at birth. She will usually be presented with one or two strands of small white beads by her mother, which are then added to as she reaches important milestones during her childhood. One of the chief milestones in any young girl’s life is coming of age, which among the Turkana, is also the stage at which young girls can be offered by their families for marriage. They are given a long, rectangular leather necklace, called an “obolio”, with beads sewn upon it; the various color combinations communicating their age, ancestry and single status to eligible men.
By far the most important beads to a Turkana woman are those gifted to her by her future husband. A man will usually present a woman with several strings of large yellow and red glass beads to demonstrate his intentions, and if a woman accepts, she will then wear the beads to announce their engagement. The Turkana are a fiercely proud ethnic group, and believe that lavishing their women with glass beads demonstrates both their wealth and social power. For this reason, a Turkana woman will potentially receive dozens of strands of glass beads from her husband during her lifetime, and will wear them all as a symbol of his commitment and adoration for her.
I’ve always considered Ghana to be the recycled glass bead-making hub of Africa. Teeming with countless small co-operatives established with the help of Fair Trade organizations, the once poverty-stricken country is almost on par with Venice in the 19th Century for its mass production of beautiful Recycled Glass Beads. But, as I’ve recently discovered, the fascination with glass-production isn’t limited to West Africa.
Nairobi, the capital, and most expansive city in Kenya, has earned a solid reputation for economic growth and development in recent years. However, even in this burgeoning city, there are areas affected by considerable poverty. Many schools don’t have the funding to provide a broad curriculum, meaning that many students are missing out on opportunities that may influence and inspire them. That was, of course, until One Bead came into the picture.
Founded in 2011, the not-for-profit organization was established to improve proper teaching programs across Kenya, and facilities to make education more accessible for children. The organization works in partnership with local glass-maker Anselm Croze (owner of the Kitengela Hot Glass Studio in Nairobi), one of just a handful of artisans credited with bringing the art of glass bead-making to Kenya. Like the Krobo and Asante of Ghana, he utilizes old glass jars, bottles and window panes for his craft, grinding them down manually into a fritt that can be filtered into molds.
Initially, One Bead began by selling glass bead bracelets on college campuses across Kenya, however, as the project grew, they began to produce Recycled Glass Beads for general sale. The project has inspired hundreds of creatives across Nairobi to learn this fascinating craft, allowing them to develop a sustainable income, and improve educational facilities within their communities.
Kitengela Glass Studio, Nairobi. Wendy Tanner/ Flickr
Turquoise Blue Padre Beads
Padre Beads have always fascinated me. Considering most are of Chinese origin (produced for senior members of the royal court), it’s been intriguing to learn that, were it not for their discovery by Spanish priests in the 1600s, these colorful beads probably wouldn’t have been quite so geographically widespread by the 18th Century. Chinese Padres were the earliest beads of this type to be used in trade, and their popularity grew quickly after the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to Southwest and Northwest America. According to historical accounts, the intrepid explorers first took the glass beads to Idaho Territory, with the sole intention of using them to barter for goods with the native Nez Perce tribe.
Given a choice of numerous colors, the Nez Perce chose the sky blue Padre Beads over the rest, citing the light blue color to be more valuable because of its spiritual meaning (heaven). Interestingly, Captain James Cook documented his difficulty in obtaining supplies from Pacific Coast Indians in 1778, stating they would only accept the blue “chief” bead. Europe began mass production of Padre Beads at the end of the 18th Century, and despite the popularity of other beads at the time among African tribes, they quickly found a special place in the hearts of the Hausa, Mursi and Suri people. The light blue beads were highly prized by the Suri, since they associated them with the sky god Tuma. Today, only the holiest of men are allowed to wear blue Padre Beads, and few are ever allowed to touch them!