Jewellery That Speaks

The Berbers wear only silver. It has something to do with silver being the preferred metal of the prophet. Archival pictures show Berber women completely laden with the most unbelievable silver adornment. Today of course, these images are fewer thanks to the skyrocketing price of silver, but still, jewellery continues to be important, not just for its decorative value. It has protective symbolism, it is the family’s bank, to be melted and traded in lean times, bought and remade in good. The jewellery a woman wears is a symbol of her family’s status and wealth. So, interestingly, the woman and not the man is the family financier plus showpiece and bearer of its reputation.

Design of Berber jewellery is strongly influenced by the ancient Berber script, Tifinagh, based on which Berber languages are written. The characters in Tifinagh reflect a simple geometry of corners, circles, triangles and dots. This abstract minimalism is used to create motifs that distinguish every piece of Berber jewellery.

The Moroccan belief in barakah, loosely interpreted as “the positive power of the saints and the Sufi brotherhoods” is also reflected in Berber jewellery through the use of symbols, designs, motifs, colors and techniques that protect the object, creator and consumer. Berber jewellery is full of protective symbolism, from the five-fingered hamsa (the “Hand of Fatima”), to the 6/8-point star, to magic numbers and crosses.

Talking about crosses, here’s another fascinating discovery. A Berber tribe known as the Tuareg (often called “the blue men” because of their indigo robes and head dress) are identified by the crosses they wear. Each Tuareg village has its own cross. You may have heard of the Agadez or the Southern Cross. That’s the one worn by the Tuareg from Agadez. In this way, there are 21 distinct crosses that have been documented to identify the Tuareg tribal groups of Northern Niger. So, when I was writing the descriptors for the crosses Nisha sourced, I actually used an old chart from the book “Das Agadeskreuz” (Systematics of the Tuareg cross, by Wolfgang Creyaufmüller) to place and name them!

When it comes to the Berbers, there is just so much to see, read and interpret, especially since there is limited archival material for authentic reference. Berber jewellery, like the Berber identity, has been likened to “an ever-prudent chameleon”, always accepting the garb of multiple identities, yet fiercely guarding what remains of their culture and tradition. In their jewellery lies the untold stories of a people, who through tenacity and modesty, have survived the trials of history.

For you, it may look like a small unimportant detail, like your thumbnail. But for me, it is the whole vast world. Look at this jewel… here is the ant, here is the hyena, the jackal, the hoof of a horse, that of a gazelle, the sun, the moon, the stars, the good eye… this triangle, this is woman, and here are the eyebrows of the Malignant One, there, laughter… it is all of our lives in one piece of silver.

Translated from the French by Helene E Hagan,
from original Tuareg words of an artisan cited by J Gabus, 1971

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One Comment

  1. Laurie Liner
    Posted 18 October 2012 at 20:34 | Permalink

    which Berber tribe is the square niello associated with? I purchased one in Morocco and was assured that it’s derivation is from the Jewish Berber.

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