Accessorizing Change: History and Materials of Maasai Jewellery

Step into the world of the Maasai tribe in Arusha, Tanzania.

The colourful Maasai anklets (2020) by Sam VoxProject FUEL

A part of Maasai identity

The Maasai beadwork is synonymous with the tribe's culture. A part of their identity since the last hundred years, the beadworks are prominently featured in their jewellery and accessories.

The colours of Maasai beadwork (2020) by Sam VoxProject FUEL

They are worn as everyday adornments to represent wealth, beauty, strength, warriorhood, marital status, age, social status, and other important cultural elements. They are also presented at ceremonies, at rites of passage, and to visitors as a sign of gratitude and respect. 

The colours of bravery and purity (2020) by Eliza PowellProject FUEL

Beadwork has a long history among the Maasai. In the nineteenth century, beads were produced mostly from local raw materials, like clay, shells, ivory, bone, wood, charcoal, copper, or brass.

Playing around at home (2020) by Sam VoxProject FUEL

Trade with Europeans

In the late 19th century, trade with the Europeans made glass beads available in Africa. At the time, glass bead making technologies were more sophisticated in Europe, which made these colourful beads very attractive and highly valued to the African elite who were willing to accept the beads as a form of exchange. The Maasai started using these glass beads to make their necklaces, bracelets, and other jewellery.

White, a symbol of peace and purity (2020) by Sidai DesignsProject FUEL

Maasai women replaced the older beads with newer materials. The colourful beads also led to a more elaborate color schemes in the beadwork designs.

Creating Maasai jewellery (2020) by Sidai DesignsProject FUEL

Materials used in creating Maasai jewellery

Today, glass beads with a shiny and smooth exterior are the primary components of Maasai jewellery. Apart from glass beads, other materials used are cowrie shells, silver discs, leather and wires for binding. The recycled thread from old grain bags is rolled to create a strong thread for beading, and pieces of recycled plastic from yogurt pots are used to hold the thread in place.

Cowrie Shells in Maasai beadwork (2020) by Sam VoxProject FUEL

Cowrie shells are also believed to be a symbol of peace.

The beautiful Maasai necklaces (2020) by Sam VoxProject FUEL

Economizing beadwork

For years the Maasai practised pastoralism. Livestock was their only source of income. But hot and arid conditions affected the pasture land. Faced with drought and unproductive drylands, Maasai communities turned inward, to women, and looked to repurpose one of their most celebrated traditions—beadwork.

Using beadwork to empower Maasai women (2020) by Sidai DesignsProject FUEL

Today, several small businesses have employed Maasai women to make jewellery that they sell through online platforms. As a result, Maasai jewellery has become very popular in international markets.

Credits: Story

Project FUEL would like to thank Sidai Designs for creating this exhibit and the Maasai community in Monduli, Arusha for opening their hearts and home for this research.

Images and Products by Sidai Designs

Sidai Designs works in collaboration with a number of Maasai women to create handmade, contemporary jewellery and accessories. Derived from the Kimaasai word, ‘Sidai’, means ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’. Their mission is to preserve age-old African beading tradition, work to create sustainable jobs and economic opportunities for Maasai women, and produce unique pieces that blend beading customs with a contemporary aesthetic. They are based in Arusha, Tanzania.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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