The Enchanting Art Of Embellishment: An African Jewellery Journey
Oh, transport me back to the era of Cleopatra, that regal sorceress of unsurpassed beauty. Ensconced in her Ancient Egypt with its tales of turbulence, passion and power, Cleopatra ruled her world. Flanked by African wildcats in emerald encrusted collars she conquered nations with one move of a serpent-shaped lapis lazuli locket and the shiver of an amethyst amulet. This ultimate vamp of the ancient world made military men quiver and her assiduous mantrap for lover Mark Antony is the stuff of legends. Such, indeed, is the power of a bejewelled femme fatale.
There’s no doubt that personal decoration has played a pivotal role throughout history – for men, women and children alike, particularly in Africa. In 2004 the oldest African jewellery known to man was discovered in the Blombos cave in South Africa – miniscule mollusk shell
beads aged over 75 000 years. This extraordinary scoop offered a fascinating insight into the ancient (and modern) human psyche’s foible for personal adornment.
www.Ingervandyke.com, Instagram @ingervandyke_official,
Embellishments – amulets, talisman, scarabs, sphinxes and their counterparts in gold, silver, copper, amber, glass, precious stones, hide, porcupine, quill, eggshell, seashells, wood, ivory, husks, carved stone, bone and many other materials found in nature – have been part and parcel of African culture for eons.
In a jewel encrusted nutshell, African adornments have seldom been purely ornamental; their use in ritualistic and religious ceremonies has been well recorded. They’re displayed not only to communicate wealth and status and protect the wearer from evil, but also – in an anthropological sense, to express tribal association, age, civil position, marital status and the wealth of the wearer. A string of African beads speaks its own language, it gives as many clues about the wearer as is written or spoken. And would you believe it, sometimes jewellery is simply used for the sake of practicality – to keep one’s hair in place!
I’m pleased to report that in modern times – 2021 to be precise – the art of embellishment is as alive as it was in during the Conquest of Egypt; the community of contemporary crafters all over the African continent is prolific in their output, their products every bit as transfixing as those of their bewitching predecessors.
As the topic is so grand in scope, I’m honing in on the southernmost tip of Africa in introducing a few of the prominent makers of beautiful things. It’s impossible not to be influenced by the magnificence of nature, the guaranteed sunshine, brilliant quality of light, the vibrancy of the African peoples and availability of precious metals and stones when creating jewellery on the continent. All the designers featured pay homage – each in their own characteristic way – to the extraordinary natural world surrounding them.
Using ethically sourced raw materials – each evoking their own mood and sense of mystery – York Van Rheede Van Oudshoorn creates individual pieces of natural body adornment in his studio workshop in bohemian Woodstock, Cape Town. Allowing each material to tell its own story and evoke its own celestial energy through the hands of the maker, this interplay between creator and subject dictates the spectacularly bold and striking pieces that emerge at the other end. Every piece of precious metal, horn or leather York utilizes speaks of the passion of this creative journey, challenging our ideas of conventional beauty at every turn. African in inspiration, African in the seeking out of local materials and unmistakably African in its ethos, VRVO has a signature that’s so iconic you’ll be able to pick it out from a million other pieces of jewellery.
www.vrvo.co.za, Instagram @vrvodesigns, Facebook @VRV
Known for her unique statement cuffs and rings, Philippa Green’s work is regularly featured in the international and local press. Her creations – pieces of wearable art really – invite the wearer to step out of their comfort zone and embrace a different part of their personality – the adventurous side! Philippa sources beautiful found objects from her natural environment and transforms them into oversized Perspex cuffs or rings. She’s been known to spend hours sewing words and intricate patterns onto individual pieces with her characteristic creative determination. Her craft is reminiscent of ancient African adornments in its boldness and gives a very considered nod to royal African lineage.
www.philippagreen.com, Instagram @philippagreenjewellery, Facebook @philippagreenjewellery
Nic Bladen has garnered global attention with his castings of life-sized bronze indigenous plant sculptures. Lucky for those of us who adore his work and want to wear it, Nic has created a range of botanical jewellery, each piece a tiny and intricate sculpted gem. Leaves, flowers, twigs, tree bark and roots morph into chokers, charm bracelets, rings, earrings and bangles, each molded to perfection by the artist’s hand. Whether it is the captivating Abandoned Wasp’s Nest ring in silver, the delicate Rooibessie Leaf Earrings or the Red Milkwood Leaf Cluster Brooch/ Wrist Piece in bronze, I would happily sport any of these beauties!
www.nicbladen.com, Facebook @NicBladenBotanicals
Designer Kristin Weixelbaumer is fascinated by the complex relationship between beauty and imperfection. So much so that she often deliberately chooses slightly flawed stones, as she believes it is our imperfections that make us uniquely special. She plays with the boundaries between ancient beauty and contemporary style, using hand-cut gemstones and precious metals to produce pieces that are exquisitely delicate and feminine, yet surprisingly bold. From a spiritual point of view Kristin believes that these intimate pieces produce an energy that grounds one, that connects one firmly to one’s core. Like the ancient African craftspeople before her, Kristin’s work honours the earth and its plentiful offerings of gold, silver and natural gemstones.
www.blackbettydesign.com, Instagram @blackbettydesign, Facebook @blackbettydesign,
Situated in the heart of Cape Town’s Design District, Woodstock Jewellers is a platform where various talented jewellers share an intimate creative space. Here one can experience locally designed jewellery making in real time. Each individual maker has their own expressive style, yet they all beautifully complement one another. One of the contributing jewelers is Cole Jewellery, whose unmistakably personal pieces incorporate the use of textiles, and is reminiscent of ancient African traditions of mixing precious metals with fabric and thread. These pieces are without a shadow of a doubt, modern heirlooms.
www.woodstockjewellers.co.za, Instagram @woodstock_jewellers,
Facebook @woodstockjewellers, @colejewellery
Designer Jessica Lea draws her inspiration from a vast array of sources – from David Bowie’s Stardust to African symbolism. Best known for her use of contemporary playful shapes and motifs, Jessica creates a very considered and elegant product, one that very subtly pays homage to the African continent. Fluid and organic shapes alternate with stylistic and sculptural ones – suns, moons, eyes and hands – flatter, please and entertain the wearer. This designer has the ability to effortlessly allow classic design to merge with modern and abstract form and in the process fully succeeds in redefining timeless beauty.
www.yellowjewellery.com, Instagram@yellowbyjeslea, Facebook @yellowjewellery,
A household name to world celebrities like Kate Middleton, Sarah Jessica Parker and Rosamund Pike, Kirsten Goss’ uber glamorous jewels strike a parallel with the bold African design ethos of old in their fearless celebration of colour and construction. Semi-precious stones – amethysts, aquamarine and garnets – are happily juxtaposed with diamonds, rubies and emeralds in exuberant gold settings. There’s no doubt that Kirsten draws design inspiration from her colourful African childhood in Kwazulu Natal; she vows to the spirit of community upliftment – so much so that members of her team who started as cleaners with the company are now qualified goldsmiths. Kirsten Goss’ joyous pieces are a celebration of life, they certainly give you ample reason to be happy to be alive and definitely make you want to dance!
www.kirstengoss.com, Instagram @kirsten__goss, Facebook @kirstengossjewellery,
Best known for utilizing wire from the historic prison fence at Robben Island (that housed as its most famous inmate Nelson Mandela) to create her iconic jewellery, designer Charmaine Taylor believes her work serves to highlight human rights issues globally. Each piece of jewellery from The Legacy Collection is created from an unrepeatable limited edition piece of fence with a unique serial number and certificate of authenticity. In line with ancient African adornment traditions Charmaine uses her profound art as a method of storytelling. And who wouldn’t want to sit around the campfire and hear this story?
www.legacycollection.org, Instagram @legacycollection, Facebook @legacycollectionsa,