The Maasai beaded necklace

Anthropology: Symbolism of Jewelry Across Cultures

Jewelry is the final accessory that we add to our outfit to look good. Be it for fashion, or a tribute to your own sense of style, or for cultural significance or wearing a cherished piece of jewelry for sentimental reasons, jewelry always provides adornment to your body. However, many of the designs or precious stones that we incorporate into our jewelry has significant meaning across cultures, countries or indigenous tribes, which is what I’m going to explore in this blog. It is also to be noted that for some symbols and designs have a universal meaning, some others may vary depending upon the culture. For example, the color of jewelry may have different meanings in different tribes.

Role of jewelry in different cultures

Adornment

It may be agreed that the primary intention of wearing jewelry is for adornment. Beauty standards vary from culture to culture, so what one group finds attractive may not be so for the other. Traditionally, jewelry was the domain of women, but it can just as easily be embraced by men too. In tribal culture, the same piece of jewelry can have multiple purposes and is used interchangeably. Jewelry worn as a necklace today can be worn as a headpiece the next day. A pendant could be attached to a necklace, woven into the hair, hung from the belt as an ornament or pinned to the dress depending on the occasion. In many tribal cultures, the back of the body is adorned just as much as the front to display prowess.

Wealth

In many tribes and cultures, once jewelry is accumulated, it is either converted into currency or used to barter. Most of this comes from the marriage dowry. Although the artisans of jewelry were usually men, it was the women who owned the jewelry and acted as keepers of it. In times of crisis, women provided jewelry to the family to prevent financial ruin. When prosperous times came, jewelry would be replenished. Regarding the exchange of jewelry for trade, the Native American Indians traded their Wampum beads. In Asia, tribes used pearls and shells and in Africa, Venetian glass beads were traded.

Status

Jewelry, more than anything else, marks the status of the wearer. Only royalty could wear Lapiz Lazuli (a semi- precious blue stone.) In Turkmen cultures, young girls and women wore the gobbah or domed headcap to indicate they have attained marriageable age. After marriage, the gobbah is switched for the egme, an ornate silver head- band that indicated that now she was married.

Functional Uses

Besides its aesthetic functions, jewelry serves several practical and functional roles. Here are a few examples.

Communication

A Tumar pendant
credit@ Tribal muse

In Central Asia and India, the large Tumar cylindrical pendants were used to carry written messages to one another. Servants took them to whomever it was intended for. The caps of the Tumar were always tightly sealed to prevent being opened by nosy people. In the Maasai culture, jewelry was designed so as to convey a hidden message. The Maasai women gossip with each other by arranging the coloured beads of their necklaces in very specific patterns- the patterns convey coded messages.

 

Hygiene Aid

Silver toothpick
credit@ Wikipedia

In Turkmen culture, jewelry pieces serve as hygiene aids, like ear cleaner pendants and their bejewelled silver toothpicks.

Work Aid

In Tibet, jewelry is utilitarian. Decorated fang- shaped pendants are worn by milkmaids at their waist to support the buckets of milk.

Protection

The spiked bracelet of the Ouled Nail women of Algeria
credit@ Pinterest

In Algeria, the Ouled Nail women use their spiked bracelets to protect themselves from exuberant admirers during dance rituals. The women’s jewelry in Turkmen culture was large, indicating the armour of the ancient tribal warrior women who fought along with men. In other cultures, placing the jewelry around the neck, chest and wrist is done in such a manner that the most vulnerable parts of the body are protected from injury. Other than physical injury, amulets and talismans incorporated into jewelry protect the spiritual part of the body. In Tibet, it is believed that the Dzi bead brings blessings to the wearer. Turkmen boys in Central Asia wear the ok- yai or the bow and arrow pendant on their backs to be blessed with luck while hunting. Amulets for every aspect of life are worn, like to increase bravery, fertility, femininity, wisdom, health and masculinity.

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Religious Beliefs

Most of us would be familiar with the jewelry that conveys religious affiliation, like the Hebrew Star of David, the Christian Cross, the Crescent shaped moon and the Tibetan Om. In many cultures, jewellers have tiny chamber boxes to hold prayers or religious teachings, like the Teslum of Ethiopia, Gau of Tibet and the Heykal of Central Asia. Sometimes, cultural and religious beliefs are linked together in such a way that we cannot distinguish them from one another.

Communal Affiliations

Dayak earrings
credit@ Michael Backman

Many cultural groups have their own jewelry so that one easily identifies them. In Borneo, the men of the Dayak tribe wear huge earrings that immediately associate them with the tribe. In Orissa, the Lingayats wear Lingam necklaces. Wearing such jewelry grants the person a sense of belonging to the tribe.

Celebrations

Certain jewelry pieces are so extravagant that they can only be taken out and worn during special occasions and celebrations. During the Gavri Festival in Bihar that lasts for forty days, the Bhil tribe of India wear large decorated beads of clay and glass. These beads are an important part of the ceremonies, for communication and for creating a connection amongst the participants. In Northern Cambodia, the Miao ritual dancers adorn themselves with silver- coloured headdresses to denote ancient traditions that bring the community together.

Rites of Passage

Asik pendant gifted to the bride
credit@ Pinterest

In any culture, a rite of passage recognizes an individual’s achievement or personal milestone, like graduation. These ceremonies also usher the person into their next stage of life, like birth, menstruation, marriage, parenthood and death. The tribe of the individual acknowledges this event by holding ceremonies where the person is decked in elaborate jewelry, often with significant meanings. For example, during an engagement ceremony in Turkmen culture, the woman is gifted with heart- shaped silver Asik pendants which she attaches to her braids. The more pendants she receives, the more blessed her and her new family will be. After the wedding, the woman wears gilded jewelry to indicate her marital status.

Significance of jewelry in different cultures

Now that we’ve looked at the many roles of jewelry in cultures, let’s see what certain jewelry means in specific cultures.

Jade Jewelry

A jade pendant with Chinese inscription
credit@ DHgate.com

In Chinese culture, jade is called the Stone of Heaven. Due to the stone’s balance between beauty and hardness, it signifies the balance of yin and yang. In China, jade fetches a higher price than other precious metals like silver and gold, partly due to its spiritual powers. The Jade jewel is believed to possess magical powers that provide protection against bad luck, evil spirits and sickness. When babies are born, Chinese families gift them jade bangles to protect them from bad luck. Besides its magical powers, jade jewelry also has a link to the past as the stone played a vital role in Chinese history. It is passed down through families as a cherished heirloom. Many jewelry pieces in China are rounded jade disks that have holes in the middle. The round shape denotes heaven and the hole acts as a pathway for the people to speak and pray to the gods. Such jewelry is traditionally used during funeral ceremonies as a connection between heaven and earth.

Maori's pounamu necklaces
credit@ Wikipedia

In the Māori language, jade is known as pounamu, while it is called greenstone in New Zealand English. Jade holds quite a significance in Māori culture. These stones are believed to be a treasure or taonga and are protected under the Treaty of Waitangi. In New Zealand, it is found only in the South Island, which the Māori call Te Wai Pounamu (‘The land of Greenstone Water’) or Te Wahi Pounamu (‘The Place of Greenstone’). Jades are passed down from one generation to another in the Māori culture and with the passing of each generation, it increases in mana (prestige.) Jades are incorporated into hei- tiki (neck pendants). The Māori’s nephrite jewelry is also popular in most countries.

Jade has positive connotations in other cultures too. Several benefits of jade are talisman properties, healing, access to the spiritual world and a peaceful death.

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Jade bracelet

Ross-Simons Good Fortune Jade Bracelet in 18kt Gold Over Sterling

Turquoise Jewelry

Many ancient cultures believed turquoise jewelry to have spiritual powers. It also represented opulence and wealth.

A Navajo turquoise necklace
credit@ Pinterest

For the Navajo tribes (one of the largest Native American tribes), turquoise jewelry denotes happiness, health and luck. Apart from this, the stone also connects the tribe to the natural world since it comes from nature. The idea of the turquoise being a protective force stems from this connection. The larger the size and number of the turquoise stones in Navajo jewelry, the greater the wealth and social power. For the ancient Persians, turquoise represented heaven, while the Greeks believed turquoise to be a symbol of purity and was often worn by young girls. For the Tibetans, the stone’s gradual colour from blue to green denotes the wisdom one gains from life. Turquoise also sands for the importance of life and death, and the stone is incorporated in bracelets and pendants.

Modern culture upholds turquoise jewelry for both beauty and its positive aspects. The stone purifies one’s heart and soul while also improving emotional and spiritual well- being.

Star of David

The Star of David pendant
credit@ Pinterest

While the main connection of the Star of David is to Jewish culture, other cultures are also known to use the symbol. The Star of David stands for solidarity amongst the Jews and when worn in jewelry (most often as necklace pendants), it marks their religion and culture. Other groups in the Middle East and northern Africa believe that the Star of David will bring them good fortune. During the Nazi occupation, the Jews wore them as identification of their heritage and only then did the Star of David become associated with the Jews. By the seventeenth century, houses of worship had the Star of David outside. Jewish athletes are also known to sew or wear the Star of David on their uniforms.

Beaded Jewelry

In Africa, the jewelry of most tribes incorporate beads, which stand for beauty, strength, culture or tradition, age, power, marital status and warrior hood. Beaded jewelry is also used as currency in trade and plays an important role in religious ceremonies. The beads are traditionally made from bone, glass, seeds, shells, horns, stones and fossils. In Kenya, beads were often made from ostrich eggs. The different colours and sizes of the beads aren’t for mere beauty- they evoke different meanings.

A Maasai beaded necklace- vibrant with colour, beauty ad meaning
credit@ Maasai beadwork

The Samburu, Maasai, Rendille and Turkana tribes of Kenya are known for extensive beaded jewel-beaded headdresses, beaded necklaces encircling their necks and beaded bracelets on their wrists. Heavily beaded brass earrings are worn by married individuals. For the women in these tribes, beaded jewelry is a representation of wealth, beauty, health, marital status and the number of children they have. For example, many earrings are worn by those women whose first child is a boy or who have many sons. Fathers give their young daughters a crimson collar of beads to show that they have already chosen a husband for her. However, the collar does not indicate that she is engaged. It is only after a proper engagement ceremony that the collar is replaced by brass earrings, denoting marriage. In a traditional tribal wedding, the strands of beads hanging off the wedding collar denotes the amount of dowry paid to the bride. For men, different jewelry worn on different parts of the body signifies their achievements. For example, the Maasai warriors wear an arm band called the errap which is made of leather and metal wire coils. The band is proof that he has fought and killed another man.

Greek worry beads or necklaces
credit@ Pinterest

In Greek culture, strings of colourful beads are joined together to form ‘worry beads’ or komboloi. The strings are filled with glass or amber beads, with a tassel on one end and a head band at the other. Komboloi originated as knotted ropes. Each knot represents a prayer. Over time, the significance of the tradition faded and now, the komboloi is more of an aid in meditation or a stress reliever. In ancient Egypt, the Egyptians wore different collars and necklaces, each with its own significance. Several strands of beads were joined together to form one wide collar worn around the neck. Some beaded collars could only be worn by dancers, pharaohs, the wealthy, priests and priestesses. Simpler beaded necklaces often had amulets attached to them. The shebyu collar was rewarded for valour.

Celtic Jewellery

The designs or symbols incorporated into Celtic jewelry stand for several concepts. Some of the common symbols appearing on rings or necklace pendants are as follows.

Claddagh

A Claddagh ring
credit@ Wikipedia

The Claddagh features two hands holding a heart in the middle with a crown on top. It is a representation of love and loyalty, familial relationships and friendships. How a ring with the Claddagh is worn also denotes the wearer’s relationship status. If the ring is worn on the right hand and the heart points towards the person’s body, then it indicates a relationship. If the ring in on the left hand with the heart pointing away from the body, it means the person is engaged. When the person is married, the ring stays on the same hand but is flipped so that the heart is now pointing towards the person.

Celtic Knot

A Celtic knot pendant
credit@ Pinterest

The Celtic knot is made of interwoven loops, appearing on jewellery. The curving lines weaved together indicate interconnectedness. There is no beginning or end in the knot and this denotes timelessness. Celtic knots are worn in jewelry for protection against adversaries or to wish someone a long life.

Trinity Knot

The Trinity knot pendant
credit@ Amazon.com

The Trinity knot is a different version of the knot symbol. In religious culture, the three points in the design stands for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other cultures wear the knot for protection, promises, love and honour, which makes it popular in engagement jewelry.

Triskele

A triskele pendant
credit@ Celtic Elegance

A triskele is a symbol that has three curving legs coming out from the centre part. The three legs represent the three elements that the wearer wants to symbolize. It could be the bond between mother, father and child, or the relationship between the past, present and future. Other symbolism include that of creation, existence and destruction or the spiritual, mortal and celestial worlds.

Tree of Life

A tree of life pendant
credit@ Amazon.com

The tree of life isn’t just incorporated into jewelry- it is one of the most popular symbols woven into clothes or added to paintings. The tree of life, with its many branches curving into the sky and the deep roots connected to the earth, symbolizes the connection between heaven, earth and the underworld. In jewelry, the tree trunk is made from wire while gemstones form the leaves. While this is the universal theme behind the tree, several cultures have added their own meaning to it. For Christians, the tree stood in the centre of Eden. In Mayan culture, the tree is known as Yaxche, while the Norse called it Yggdrasil. For both these cultures, the branches of the tree hold up the homes of their gods. The Egyptians believed that the tree had holy powers and connected life and death. In many cultures, the tree depicts death and rebirth through winter bareness and spring blossom. The tree of life also denotes being present and growing in the now- its roots stand for a solid footing or foundation, while its vast branches denote learning and growth.

In jewelry, the tree of life is added with other natural aspects like birds and butterflies. Tribes add their own cultural symbols while incorporating the tree of life into their jewelry.

Native American Jewelry

Native American jewelry typically features silver or copper with coral, shell, turquoise, bone and beads. The traditional designs reflect the beliefs of the tribes.

Hopi silver jewellery
credit@ Pinterest

The Hopi (one of the Native American tribes) are renowned for their jewelry. Their unique style is a homage to their art and heritage. Craftsmen in the tribe are experts in silver- smithing. Hopi silver jewelry is made through the process of overlaying two silver pieces. One of the pieces features design cut-outs. Many of the designs are a tribute to water, the sun, kachina figures and cornstalks. None of the other Native American tribes use this method and hence, it makes the Hopi tribe unique and easily identifiable through their jewelry.

A dream catcher necklace
credit@ Pinterest

According to Native American folklore, dream catchers catch negative dreams in the web while good dreams glide down the feathers into the mind of the person sleeping. Upon the arrival of dawn, the negative dreams perish. In jewelry, dream catchers are fashioned out of wire and cord. The design keeps evil forces at bay. The webbing is decorated with turquoise seed beads.

It is understood that most of the designs in our jewelry are cultural, religious and geographical symbolism, handed down through the ages. With the passing of each age, more meaning is added to the already abundant significance behind jewelry.

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