When you look at the bust of Nefertiti, with her high cheekbones, angular jaw and elegant eyebrows, the Egyptian queen gazes back at you with a timeless grace that transcends the 3,300 years since she locked eyes with her creator. Her name means “the beautiful one has come forth”. And the discovery of this sculpture by German archaeologists in 1912 caused a sensation. Within a year, Louis Cartier had included an Egyptian pendant and amulet in a jewellery exhibition in Paris and Boston. Soon Van Cleef & Arpels was producing jewels depicting scarabs and sphinxes, Vogue was featuring Egyptian fashion designs and women were doing their hair up in the style of the queens of Egypt. Further discoveries fuelled the craze, especially the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Egyptian fever reached an unsustainable peak when Cartier started using original antiquities in his new jewellery creations.
The mania for ancient Egypt was “one of the most engaging and enduring influences on 20th-century jewellery design”, according to Vivienne Becker, a historian of jewellery. Today, we are again seeing a revival of interest in cultural influences from Africa, not just in jewellery but in fashion, art and music. Yet despite the persistent influence of African designs on Western artisans, the modern jewellery industry in Africa has not yet blossomed.
Africa has an extraordinarily rich history of jewellery making. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of human adornment has been found in Africa: around 40,000 years ago, in what is now Kenya, people wore decorations made out of shells and ostrich eggs.
Ancient civilisations left a rich trove of cultural treasures on the continent, including the thousand or more bronzes of the kingdom of Benin, some created before the 13th century, and the crosses of the Zagwe kings in what is now Ethiopia, which are just as old. There are more recent examples too, such as fine gold filigree worn by Senegalese women in the 18th century.
The continent’s geography and geology have also been crucial to the gem business. Africa has more of the shiny stones and precious metals used to make jewellery than any other continent. Yet despite these ample gifts of history and geography, Africa’s jewellers are just a trickling hillside tributary flowing into the great, gushing river of wealth that makes up the global industry, which analysts estimate is worth almost $300bn in sales a year.
So why has the jewellery industry largely bypassed the continent on which it was born? The long legacy of destruction wrought on Africa by colonialism and the slave trade are partly to blame. In the early 14th century the Malian empire was so rich in gold that modern historians reckon that Mansa Musa, its ruler, was not just the wealthiest person of his age, but possibly ever. Yet today Mali is among the world’s poorest countries, with little in the way of art or ancient treasures.
The continent has also suffered from having no hub where jewellers congregate. The jewellery industry, like many others, is built on networks. Hollywood came to rule the movie industry because it served as a meeting place for producers, directors and actors; to get into film you had to go there. Jewellery houses have gathered around the world’s most expensive shopping streets in New York, London and Geneva to be close to one another, as well as to their buyers. Though a large share of the world’s diamonds were mined in Africa, the global centre of the diamond industry has for 500 years been thousands of miles away in Antwerp in Belgium. Some 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the city, according to Bain, a consulting group. More than 1,800 firms there specialise in cutting, polishing and trading diamonds, as well as insuring and shipping them.
There is no such African hub. Jewellery houses that try to set up on the continent often struggle to compete with those elsewhere because of a lack of skills or services. Satta Matturi was born in Sierra Leone and spent a decade working at De Beers, one of the world’s largest diamond companies. These days she divides her time between Botswana and Britain, but the jewels for her eponymous brand are crafted in Britain and India. “I’d love to have them made in Botswana or elsewhere on the continent,” she says. Yet despite initiatives to promote jewellery manufacturing in Africa, the specialised skills and infrastructure are still in short supply.
Other trends compound this predicament. The global jewellery industry is increasingly dominated by a few international brands. In 2014, the ten biggest jewellery houses accounted for about 20% of global sales by value, according to McKinsey, a consulting firm, double the market share of a decade earlier.
Yet, like gemstones gleaming in the dark, there are glimmers of hope for African jewellers in the form of growing demand for African-inspired or African-made jewellery. Some of this is fuelled by the rapid growth of Africa’s middle classes. Earlier generations of wealthy Africans looked to Western brands such as Cartier or Rolex as status symbols, but many younger Africans want to pay homage to their heritage.
Vania Leles grew up in Guinea-Bissau in west Africa and draws inspiration from that childhood. Her collections at VanLeles, which is based in London, have names such as “Legends of Africa” and “Sahara”, with diamond earrings that resemble the shape of the continent, and gold earrings crafted to look like the rooftops of tribal houses. Leles says that a growing number of African clients are “so proud that finally they can buy fine jewellery from an African person”. She reckons the continent is rediscovering its roots. “African civilisations were probably the first to embrace body adornments and jewellery of gold,” she says. “Yet as the centuries passed, we just became the suppliers of natural resources instead of the producers of fine jewellery.”
This interest in African jewellery is part of the continent’s growing cultural cachet. Prices for contemporary African art are rising fast, and, when Sotheby’s in London staged its fourth auction of such work in April 2019, some 70% of the art sold went to buyers from Africa. The continent is looming larger in popular culture, too. In 2018 “Black Panther” became one of the highest-grossing superhero films ever. It was notable for its predominantly black cast clothed in “Afrofuturist” costumes – contemporary clothes based on traditional designs, such as the stacked neck rings of Ndebele women or beaded clothes worn by Masai women.
In time, jewellers may respond. In many African cities people who once aspired to Western brands are now “listening to local music and wearing clothes designed and made locally and saying ‘what about our own?’,” says Matturi. “It’s long overdue, and it’s beautiful, and if you have a movement of a huge number of people, you have to listen.”•