The Tropenmuseum (Ethnographic Museum) in Amsterdam features a collection of Berber jewelry in the permanent West-Asia and North-Africa exhibition. This jewelry dates from the period 1900 through 1940 and mainly hails from the southern regions of the Atlas Mountains, also known as Anti-Atlas.
The Berbers or Imazighen (‘Free people’; plural of Amazigh) are the original inhabitants of North Africa. They speak a number of related languages and share a common cultural heritage. Most Berbers nowadays live in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
The development of the Berber, or Amazigh culture has largely taken place in Morocco, as a result of their forming a large part of the population (about 50%). Women play and important role in public Amazigh culture. They nurture their cultural identity by means of a number of art forms, being especially famous for their a cappella singing (izran) and handicrafts. In particular, handmade rug making, ceramics and silver jewelry. In these women’s visual expression of identity, jewelry play an important role. Men, however, wear very little jewelry, with the exception of rings and, nowadays, watches, that serve a more practical purpose. Magical powers are attributed to jewelry, which enhances its emotional value.
In Berber culture, jewelry has a symbolic and mythical meaning besides their practical and ornamental function, as they are used as charms and talismans to protect against evil spirits and influences. In addition, acquiring jewelry has an economic meaning. An Amazigh woman’s jewelry is her private property. She may buy, and then later sell jewelry to support her family in dire economic times. With the money she might also buy cattle or land. Smart commercial use makes women apt family bankers. Nowadays this use of jewelry has lost most of its importance, with the traditional silver pieces mostly having been replaced by gold ones.
Also, the traditional Amazigh nomadic lifestyle has given way to a sedentary way of life, that generates other sources of income. Despite these economic and sociocultural changes traditional jewelry is still valued, and worn on special occasions. A woman wearing a broche, bracelet, necklace, earrings or a silver hand of Fatima (khamsa, literally: ‘five’) shows her allegiance to tradition and origin.
Berbers traditionally hand down jewelry from mothert to daughter. When this proves impossible, for instance when there’s more than one daughter, a new, desired piece is bought before the daughter’s wedding. Women will start collection jewelry from an early age, a habit that will ‘accelerate’ as marriage draws near. Preferably, pieces of jewelry will be tailor-made and in accordance with personal preferences. This means jewelry, when transferred to the next generation, will need to be tailored by a goldsmith. For this reason, antique pieces, dating back to the 19th century, are quite rare.
Authentic Berber jewelry
The most prominent Berber jewelry items are necklaces, bracelets, brooches and large earrings, often supported by a chain passing over the head, and sometimes fitted with pendants at the temples.
Traditional Berber women’s wear is draped and held together with brooches (tizerzai) and a belt. In Morocco, these pins may be shaped differently depending on the region, viz. round, triangular, and with or whithout ram’s horns on the sides, a reference to female fertility. These clothing pins aren’t just beautiful, but also practical. They are used to pin down their wraps at the breasts, allowing the free movement of the arms.
A piece of jewelry Amazigh women often wear is a necklace stringed from amber beads, coin pendants and shells. It was believed amber had a protective quality. This type of necklaces used to b worn by the women of the Ida ou Semlal, a Berber people in the western Anti-Atlas. Possibly this necklace had always been a part of the dowry, or else it was acquired later as an expression of the family’s growing wealth. An other piece of jewelry, worn by the women of the Ahl Massa, a tribe from the southwest of Morocco, consisted of red coral beads and a specific number of pendants with a spiral-shaped motive, which represents the eternal. Some chains also display aphorisms in the Berber Tifinagh alphabet.
There are a number of types of bracelets. The Aït Atta, a Berber tribe in Morocco’s southeast, wear star-shaped bracelets which may also be used fors self-defense. The women of the Ida ou Semlal will wear not only the usual adelbidj bracelets, but also hinging models (tanbelt), adorned with geometrical and floral patterns. It is clear that Amazigh jewelry are a fine example of a unique craftsmanship.
Collection Tropenmuseum, photography Irene de Groot
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