Ethnic jewelry can be earthy and organic, quirky and eccentric, chunky and cheerful or miniature masterpiece. The range of ethnic pieces available includes not only traditional crafts, but works by contemporary designers as well as antique pieces and funky items made as part of community projects. Whether you are seeking an investment or a piece that will make a fashion statement, there are jewelry items from around the world that will suit your look and your budget. African and Native American ethnic jewelry is among the most celebrated and collectible.
Collectible ethnic jewelry (sometimes also called tribal jewelry) comes in many guises. Antique pieces are bought after and since often expensive. Pieces by contemporary jewelry designers give a modern twist to traditional themes and materials. They are collectible as mini-artwork in themselves and as quality antiques of the future. While some serious collectors focus on particular groups, individual makers, genres of jewelry, or selected materials, an ethnic jewelry collection that will give endless pleasure might equally celebrate the extraordinary range of styles and materials that are used worldwide.
Beadwork and silver jewelry are some of the most collectible types of ethnic jewelry. Beads and other ethnic jewelry components were once used as trading currency. In the Americas this was known as wampum. Glass beads were traded across continents in the second millennium AD. Trade beads made in Egypt, India and beyond were traded through the Red Sea and across cross-continental trade routes in exchange for African gold, copper and hides. Jewelry pieces made from these beads are little relics of a rich but little-known history.
Glass beads made in countries such as Czechoslovakia were introduced into Africa by traders, explorers and missionaries. Beadwork made by the southern African Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa peoples is a world famous and provides a fascinating glimpse into African cultures and societies. Especially famous are Zulu pieces in which the patterns are in fact messages, used especially in courting. Zulu love letters are somehow the best known. The colorful geometric designs of African beadwork are much sought after by collectors.
African fine jewelry is equally collectible. The silverwork of the Tuareg of North Africa, traditionally worn for safety and protection, is renamed. West Africa has a tradition of fine gold working that goes back to the Ashanti empire and before. Akan gold jewelry, traditionally used in ceremonies and for personal beautification, is made to adorn almost every part of the body.
Amongst the most famous makers of traditional tribal jewelry world-wide are the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni of the south-western United States. Navajo silver and turquoise pieces have been made since the nineteenth century when the art of smithing was acquired and perfected. Turquoise has strong spiritual value, and is linked to the sky, the rain and the world of the gods and spirits. Navajo 'squash blossom' necklaces feature a motif resembling a flower, although it was probably originally modeled on a piece of Spanish saddlery. Zuni fetish bracelets are well-known for the small carved animals that adorn them. Beadwork includes heishi necklaces, from New Mexico: intricate pieces made of hundreds of tiny shell beads.
It often takes a skilled eye to recognize the highest quality pieces and to distinguish them from the fakes and reproductions that abound. Some ethnic collectors are wary of acquiring antique pieces because many were originally associated by Europeans by exploitation rather than fair trade. Buyers should be wary of contemporary pieces containing animal products lest they breach regulations regarding endangered species. Ivory is a common component of older pieces that under the CITES convention is strictly controlled and can not be imported or exported.
African and Native American ethnic and tribal jewelry may be the best-known, but fine and charming jewelry pieces are made by peoples all over the world. Revived jewelry traditions, like Celtic jewelry, are another option. Ethnic jewelry items add individual flair to any outfit from casual to formal. Unlike mass-produced works, much ethnic and tribal jewelry is hand-made and environmentally friendly. The ultimate charm of ethnic jewelry lies in its unique styles, its history and the spiritual values attached to it as well as the range of human experience and creative expression to which it is testimony.