Bold and beautiful African jewellery

Last Sunday’s theme for our Africa Fashion photoshoot was Bold Jewellery, both vintage and contemporary statement pieces. Taking inspiration from the ‘dressing up’ experience a lot of females can relate too – going through your mothers wardrobe or jewellery box, rooting till you find that special something that makes you say “YES! That’s mine!”, even if only for an hour or two of make believe. In this article, we focus on the traditional.

Photographing the bib style necklaces was a nostalgic experience, remembering when I saw them for the 1st time, looking as good now on our model Elizabeth, wearing Baib cosmetics, as what they did ‘way back when’ on my mother.

Dating back to the 1960’s, this vintage 10-strand black heishi-beaded layered bib necklace with brass tubes is timeless.


Heishi (or Heishe pronounced hee-shee) means ‘Shell’. It comes from the Keres language, spoken by the Native Americans living in Kewa, New Mexico. Pieces of organic shell or stones are ground, polished and drilled into beads forming a small disc- or tube-shape before being strung into necklaces.

The origin of heishi is linked to the ancient history of the people most proficient in its making, the Santo Domingo and San Felipe Pueblo Indians.

The oldest specimens of heishe dates back to around 6,000 BCE, although the same technique was used in Northern Africa 30,000 years ago with ostrich eggshell. The beads are normally made of organic shell, however heishi has come to refer to hand-made tiny beads made of any natural material. If you’re curious to know exactly how heishi beads are made and strung to perfection by hand, then this collectors guide will tell you all you need to know.

Featured Jewellery

Vintage 1970’s Bib: Remembering the pieces I’d played with as a girl, I decided to ask my mum to lend me some of her jewellery. She quickly mustered up three beautiful pieces (starting with the Heishi necklace above) and it quickly became clear that she’s always been a #FashionableMum.



These images by Peter Branch and make up by Baib cosmetics, show this classic collection to great effect.

When it comes to jewellery, perhaps Africa is best known for its beautiful handmade beadwork – created in diverse and ingenious ways by tribes across the continent.

Zulu Bead Jewellery is based on long standing traditions, and their designs convey important information about the wearer. A necklace may indicate where the wearer is from or what family they belong to.

Zulu Bead Necklace


These three tribal necklaces above are from African Creative, a great destination for anyone interested in hand-crafted African designs, Jewellery, Home Decor or Art.

Maasai Beaded Jewellery is created based on strict tribal rules pertaining to the colours and design. Maasai women wear very beautiful beaded jewellery on special occasions such as weddings.

Massi Beads

Many designers  are now tapping into the Maasai’s renowned beading skills for high-end jewellery designs – working with the community to produce pieces that showcase their traditional techniques.

But this hasn’t always been the case. For many years, African communities have been the source of inspirational ideas, unique raw materials and many other contributions to fashion – but they have not always benefited from the success of the international fashion industry they have inspired.

Fashion4Development (F4D), launched by Evie Evangelou in January 2011, is a global campaign that uses fashion-based initiatives to support the United Nations’ wider issues in helping Africa. The goal is encapsulated in their guiding statement: “Our mission is to harness the power of the fashion and beauty industries and implement creative strategies for sustainable economic growth, wellness and independence of communities worldwide and the preservation of culture through the expression of fashion”. Very laudable.

The UN’s International Trade Centre (ITC) Ethical Fashion Initiative, a project which connects the fashion business with African artisans, helps highlight issues like overall development, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

People who craft in Africa continue to produce beautiful bead work, using traditional techniques and materials that are unique to their region or tribe. Producing and selling beads has been a major source of income for many of the tribal people of Africa. Tania Phipps-Rufus, founder of Eco Fashion Rules, says “It’s important to be aware of the risks when partnering with indigenous tribes and communities. As more companies look to the continent of Africa for inspiration, they must ensure that the these partnerships mutually benefit those communities”.

Eco Fashion Rules conducts research & raises awareness for designers, brands & consumers on the legal & policy tools relevant to eco, ethical & sustainable fashion.

Whether you’re looking for your first item of stunning, hand-crafted statement jewellery – or you want to add to your existing collection – then you will want to consider a purchase from Soko – created by artisans in emerging economies, using natural and upcycled materials. Soko is an innovative concept in global fashion, using technology to connect consumers to producers from across the world.

Soko was founded on the belief that innovation can empower women, can connect markets, and can foster opportunities that change lives – something that Africa Fashion also holds very dear.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our first look into African Jewellery, tune back for a more in-depth look at both the contemporary and vintage styles.

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