Among the nomadic Tuareg people of northern Africa, jewelry has meaning. After all, a nomadic people have little incentive to cart loads of trendy, meaningless paraphernalia. Livestock and vehicles traversing untamed, inhospitable terrain of the Sahara desert require thoughtful consideration before adding to the loads they bear. Therefore, the items the Tuareg often serve multiple purposes–and that includes jewelry.
Multi-tasking need not exclude beauty. Jewelry offers a portable outlet for artistic expression, religious and historical reference, and displays of wealth.
Like many people with ancient traditions, the Tuareg assign firm roles to men, women, and children. Among such roles lies the creation of the handicrafts that they use to live their lives, perpetuate their history, and express their culture. Among the Tuareg, only men manufacture the stunning silver jewelry for which their people are famed.
That jewelry, worn by both men and women, carries symbolic meaning. Silversmith Mohamed Ahnou explains many of the forms and designs. The air cross represents the conflict between the Tuaregs and the Berbers, as well as their resistance of Western colonization. Fathers give their sons the Agadez cross to signify their coming of age, the transition from child to man when the young man is considered free to travel wherever he wishes. The four points of the Agadez cross symbolize the four corners of the world.
Men present their future brides with. The triangular forms represent Tuareg tents which encompass families and therefore signify the unity of their future family. Men and women adorn themselves with for special occasions, a symbol of welcome to all the people who join in their celebrations. Koranic script on silver talismans offers protection. These tcherot are also worn by both sexes.
In addition to the forms, the designs inscribed on the forms also carry ancient meaning that hearkens back to ages before the tribes’ conversion to Islam. Primary motifs include triangles and diamonds, especially on protective amulets. A hashmark design (////////), as seen on this, symbolizes the freely moving wind as it sweeps across the desert, leaving lines in the sand that indicate its direction. Desert guides follow those lines so as not to walk directly into the wind. A zigzag pattern, such as on this, denotes the track of ants, which, during time of famine, the Tuareg will follow to the insects’ colonies to harvest grains of millet stored by the ants. Small circles represent jackals, which threaten the nomadic people’s herds of goats. “Y” symbols echo the wooden stands upon which clothes and food are placed out of the reach of animals, such as shown on this pendant, represent the gourds used to contain henna paste. A solid dot stands for the chameleon’s eye, the lizard being considered a harbinger of good or bad luck depending upon the position of its tail. The pound or number sign (#) echoes the weave of cloth, used for tents and clothing. A crescent represents the everpresent acacia wood bowls from which the nomads eat. Other designs include discs, stars, and rosettes.
Discover the beauty and symbolism of Tuareg jewelry yourself through Zawadee’s. Scholars disagree on the continued importance of these symbolic meanings, especially those that predate the conversion to Islam, the colonization of northern Africa by Western countries, the spread of farming and urban cultures, and relentless commercialization of native arts and crafts. One scientist, Lloyd Graham, however, persisted in the belief that the archetypal jewelry designs still carried meaning. His paper “The Magical Symbol Repertoire of Talismanic Rings from East and West Africa” explores the significance of Tuareg jewelry designs and can be downloaded from Academia.edu.