The Amazing History and Styles of African Jewelry

African Jewelry comes in various designs and styles, rich with history and meaning. It serves more than just bodily adornments. This jewelry may be used as a form of investment, amassing gold, gemstones, or precious metals in bracelets and amulets, or it may serve as a symbol of status.  

African Jewelry is rarely merely aesthetic; rituals, religion, and ceremonies all play significant roles. Jewelry is not selective to any gender or age; children wear jewelry from a very early age and may have it replaced during significant events such as puberty and marriage. 

African Jewelry includes bracelets, necklaces, earrings, pendants, and waist beads. They differ based on the various tribes that exist in the area and their origin dates back to 75,000 years ago. Let’s take a look at what makes African jewelry unique and what they represent to those that wear them.   

History and Evolution of African Jewelry 

a woman wearing african print bid necklace
African print bib necklace. See it here.  

Africa is a force to reckon with in any discussion concerning the evolution of different jewelry pieces in the world. This is because it’s home to the first beads ever.  

Africa is considered to be the cradle of mankind and human civilization. The oldest jewelry in Africa was recently found but is said to be up to 75,000 years old.  The jewelry was made of a mollusk shell and is considered. 

Notable African Jewelry can be found among the Yorubas from Nigeria, Masai from Kenya, Ankole from Uganda, Tutsi from Rwanda, Zulu from South Africa, and many other tribes. 

In Africa, most pieces of traditional jewelry were made using different organic materials, for example, animal teeth, seeds, animal hair, porcupine quills, eggshells, stone, ivory, husks, hides, clay, and shells. Archeologists have traced back the existence of various pieces made from ostrich and cowrie shells. Although materials used in making African Jewelry have evolved over time, some like cowrie shells are used currently because of their eco-friendliness and re-usability. 

ankara necklace for men
Ankara necklace for men. See it here. 

Although Africa grew from being at the center of civilization, metallurgy was already established in various parts from ironworking to the use of gold and silver. The process birthed the making and distribution of jewelry from copper and iron alloys.  

By the 15th century, colonial trade routes brought about the importation of brass coins, ceramics, amber, and coral beads. African Jewelry began to be predominantly dependent on these materials.  

Beads dating back to 10,000 BCE are used to symbolize royalty and prestige. It was also used as a form of currency.  

What’s African Jewelry Made Of? 

ndebele necklace and cuff set
Ndebele necklace and cuff set. See it here.

As earlier stated, African jewelry is made from or built customarily from materials that are organic.  

The materials are considered biodegradable or reusable; therefore, those materials are considered harmless to the environment.  

Some of the compositions of African jewelry are carved stones, ivory, wood, eggshell, land shells, sea shells, husks, nuts, seeds, hair from animals, animal teeth, bones, quills from porcupines, and animal hides.  

african statement jewelry
Modern African statement jewelry. See it here.

The composition does not only testify to the true beauty of nature but also to conserving the beautiful environment. 

However, these days, modern designs incorporate metals such as gold, brass, copper, silver, and more. They also use gemstones such as sapphires, turquoise, rubies, tanzanite, and others.  

Symbolism of Jewelry for Africans 

african ethnic hammered brass earrings on the woman's ear
Tribal hammered brass earrings. See them here.

The function of jewelry in Africa transcends beauty. Different jewelry types may symbolize various things depending on the context, religion, and tribal beliefs. In some cultures, a child’s piece of adornment changes once he or she attains puberty or gets married. A piece of jewelry may also point to a person’s social standing in life.  

Gold, gemstones, and other precious metals symbolize wealth.  

Beads from seeds and other materials in most cultures symbolize the uniqueness of their traditions as well as the tribe’s history. For instance, Masai Beads symbolize unity and bravery while beads point to royalty among the Yorubas (Nigeria).   

Finding African Jewelry Online 

maasai beaded necklace
Handmade Masai beaded necklace. See it here.
african modern wood earring on a mannequin's ear
Tribal wooden earrings. See them here. 

There are about one hundred and twenty-eight million results when the word African jewelry is typed into the google search engine. This is a popular topic and people are looking for African jewelry to add to their collections. After all, African jewelry is colorful, unique, and makes a statement.  

If you’re looking to buy African-themed or inspired jewelry, we recommend searching on Etsy for artisanal, modern pieces inspired by African designs. Browse here for more ideas.  

Quick Facts about African Jewelry 

ankara print african necklace on the woman's neck
Ankara print African necklace. See it here.
  • Africa is believed to be the producer of the first jewelry which is said to be about 75,000 years old. It is known as shell jewelry because it is made from sea snails and was discovered in the Blombos caves located in South Africa. 
  • African Jewelry is symbolic. It is mostly cultural and spiritual.  
  • African Jewelry is a product of natural things around them such as cowrie shells, beads, and wood. 
  • Jewelry from Africa is mostly crafted by hand. This shows much effort is dedicated to making them.  
  • African jewelry exists in different types or forms. It could be earrings, bracelets, amulets, chokers, or even adornments for the hair.  Chokers are the first piece of jewelry worn by girls from the Masai area. 
  • Jewelry from Africa tends to be environmentally friendly. Since most Jewelry from Africa is reusable and biodegradable, they are having less effect on the environment. 

Can I Wear African Jewelry? 

If you’re not African, wearing African jewelry can be seen as cultural appropriation. Having said that, if you understand the symbolism and meaning behind a piece, and wear it with respect, there’s no reason why it should be an issue.  

African jewelry pieces are beautiful and distinct, and it’s easy to see why anyone would want to wear them. As with any cultural object, respect and empathy will go a long way.  

Wrapping Up 

African jewelry holds the honor of being one of the earliest forms of adornment, tracing back to a staggering 75,000 years ago. Today, these pieces are treasured globally, available from brick-and-mortar stores to online retailers. Wearing African-inspired jewelry is not just a style statement but a nod to a rich cultural heritage, and appreciating their meaning and origins is a sign of deep respect for this ancient art form.

Nadi Alahakoon

Nadisha has been a fashion aficionado for as long as she can remember! From following the latest trends to checking out vintage styles, she’s always curious about what’s in and what’s out! She has a background in Nursing, literature, and English. When she’s not writing about jewelry and diamonds, Nadisha spends her time window shopping, dancing, or traveling the beautiful landscapes of Canada.

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