Secret Power of Tribal Jewelry
I was 7 years old when we spent a wonderful summer at my auntie Guler’s home by the Aegean coast. Us kids would spend all day at the sea while the grown-ups heatedly discussed who shot JR. Then we’d come back home to a busy kitchen getting ready for dinner, and afterwards we would meet with the local kids to play hide and seek. Our itinerary was blissful in its consistent simplicity.
One morning though, it began to rain. Aimlessly wondering around the house, praying for the sun to come out, I passed by a room I hadn’t noticed before. It was adorned in a spirited mess of pouches and boxes, overflowing with colorful beads and stones and hand-knitted flowers. A large wooden desk in the corner that resembled a carpenter’s shed. When my auntie found me snooping around, she sternly told me to take a seat. She handed me one of the pouches. Inside was a collection of pastel-colored beads that were shaped like roses. She looked at me and demanded, “Make a necklace!” and with that, the rest of my summer was spent in that magical room.
She is the one who taught me that wearing jewelry is like being in a fairy-tale, that it has transformative powers. She showed me pictures of African women with neck rings, Indian brides adorned head to toe in gold and precious stones and told me that women have been making jewelry since the dawn of time.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of human beings have always been the primitive need for self-expression. The prehistoric paintings at Chauvet Cave is believed to withhold the oldest signs of art, which dates back to 32.000 years. The first appearance of jewelry however, dates back to much earlier – 110.000 to be precise – and are found in archeological digs in Morocco, in the form of decorative sea shell beads which are believed to be used as amulets. Drilled shells have also been found in Israel, Algeria and South Africa as well as beads made from bone and animal teeth in France.
Whatever the age in history or whatever the material used – hair, feathers, leather, bones, wood, shells, minerals, metals and gemstones – women (and men!) across all cultures have always been wearing jewelry to showcase themselves. On an evolutionary stand-point, it’s been an attractive tool to feel beautiful and look sexually desirable in the name of pro-creation, similar to the fashion a peacock spreads its magnificent tail. Socially, it’s been significantly used as a symbol of rank, status, political affiliation and religion.
Yet jewelry is chiefly something that has to do with emotion. It has a power to deeply influence the way we feel about our interior and exterior worlds. When I asked my sister how she feels when wearing her necklace made of Indian prayer beads, she told me, “I feel protected.” Isn’t that initially the same reason we wear evil eye? Or my friend who never takes off her rough pearl ring passed down by her grandmother because it makes her feel like “she is always here.” These pieces we carry on our bodies become the protective and the maternal.
They also become our voices. When you can’t find the words, you can make your jewelry speak for you. A friend wears an owl ring bracelet adorned in crystals as a symbol of her identity because she believes it to be her spirit animal. When I asked my film teacher at college why she was always wearing a feather necklace, she explained to me that it was a prayer feather and that she believed it carried her words, thoughts and feelings to the Great Spirit. Alexander Mcqueen talked about jewelry as an armor. As I am small in stature and generally soft-spoken, when I feel like I’m going into battle at work, I put on my malachite & gold serpent cuff bracelets on each wrist and feel like a Roman warrior, ready to cut through any possible underestimation coming my way. As my auntie said, they have transformative powers.
So of all the cuts, styles and materials, it is when I wear a genuinely tribal or ethnically influenced piece of jewelry that I feel powerful, and magestically feminine. Not in a delicate way but in a completely raw, permordial kind of way. It makes me feel grounded, abundant in my creativity and strength like the Mother Earth.
In the brilliant book Dictionary of Symbols (which I recommend everyone to have), they explain that “from the starting point of the Jungian ‘soul’ jewelry comes to stand for the unseen wealth of the unconscious. Because they are energy and light, they have the tendency to pass from the level of hidden knowledge to that of primeval energy.”
Tribal jewelry evokes tenderness, dynamism and internal strength like no other because it carries the presence, wisdom and support of generations of women before us. We feel connected. And how desperately we are in need of that right now, amidst the stilted backdrop of overpowering skyscrapers, claustrophobic traffic and suffocatingly over-populated streets where, in paradox, we feel more isolated than ever! From others but most frighteningly, from our own core.
There are many ways to incorporate them in your wardrobe. I personally love the contrast between the bright vigor of the jewelry with something understated, to give it life and energy. If you’d like something a bit more modern, here are a few designers who take their inspiration from history, mythology and various ethnicities.
I would like to leave you with a quote from Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art and author of the book titled The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. He concludes his TedTalk with the following:
The next time you pass a jewelry shop window displaying a beautifully cut teardrop-shaped stone, don’t be so sure it’s just your culture telling you that that sparkling jewel is beautiful. Your distant ancestors loved that shape and found beauty in the skill needed to make it, even before they could put their love into words. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No, it’s deep in our minds. It’s a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.