The Rich History of Berber Jewelry
Moroccan Berber Jewelry
Workmanship and detail of pieces in the jewelry souks are unique to Berbers (Berbers or Amazighs an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa primarily inhabiting Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya Mauritania, northern Mali, northern Niger and a large part of Western Europe). Traditionally, the Berber women wore silver and still do today although gold has become increasingly popular, especially in urban areas, due to its higher value. This probably was due to its availability: Morocco is a top 20 global silver producer and mines have been in use in the Souss-Massa- Draa region since the 1st century AD.
As in many traditional cultures, jewelry was and remains multi-purpose. It serves practical and adornment purposes as well as embodying a protective aspect of the Berber women or an indicator of wealth and social status.
Berber women often receive elaborate silver jewelry from their husbands at the time of marriage. This ensures that she has her own wealth in the event of hardship or of becoming widowed. Traditionally, these pieces are worn at the wedding and include headdresses, earrings, necklaces, bangles, bracelets, and rings. One of the headdresses worn by all Berber women at weddings is called a ‘tasfift’ and is essentially an ornate headpiece adorned with silver or nickel coins featuring King Mohammed V or Hassan II. It has a rooster or chicken featured on the tip of the head to promote fertility of the new bride.
The pieces are worn by Berber women at weddings often feature beads of coral, amber or semi-precious stones plus cast coins and linked chains. Shapes and forms include those which are intended to ward off evil or geometric shapes reflecting both the Islamic tradition and Berber symbology. Many families sadly no longer have these heirlooms and in modern cities, it has become common to hire costume jewelry for the wedding day. It is possible to see examples of traditional Berber jewelry in the excellent Museums of Berber culture in Agadir and at the Majorelle Gardens, Berber Museum, in Marrakech.
A typical silver piece is the ‘fibula’. These are still made today and make unusual gifts as brooches. In fact, although decorative, the fibula has a very practical application in that it is used to join or fasten fabrics such as cloaks. It usually consists of either a singular triangle with a pin for fastening or two such sections connected by a chain. The fibula design came to Morocco with the Romans and is essentially an early form of the safety pin. However, Berber craftsmen brought this useful item to a whole new level of aesthetics and symbolism. The triangular shape is said to represent a woman (and fertility) and the tent and therefore home or family.
The Hand of Fatima or ‘khamsa’ is represented everywhere in Morocco from door knockers to decorations to jewelry. Common to the Islamic and Jewish faiths, it is believed to ward off evil or jealousy. The hand – with its five digits – is intrinsically linked to symbols of other faiths and cultures such as the five-pointed star or the pentagram. Modern and older khamsa pendants are available in souks all over Morocco.
Another common form is the ‘agadez’ or southern cross. These pendants are traditionally native to the Touareg tribes ( a large Berber ethnic confederation located for the most part in the Sahara desert) and are available across Morocco. The jewelry created by these craftsmen and women are collected by women during their lifetime. The Berbers have been a traditionally nomadic people and these silver bracelets, amulets, necklaces and colorful semi-precious stones and glass provide the women with a dowry. They alone own the jewelry they wear and can barter it for money or things they need to provide for their family.
Moroccan jewelry is a wonderfully, magical, decorative way to adorn any outfit. You are guaranteed a compliment or two and will certainly feel unique knowing that your piece is unique and a statement of who you are...
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This article was written with information supplied in part by travel writer,
Lynn Sheppard. She has lived in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast for more than 2 years, supporting local non-profits, writing and becoming an expert on all things Swiri (ie. Essaouiran).