Of course, jewelry was and is still used for aesthetic appeal. But there has always been some significance attached to every piece made and worn.
An example is the use of jewelry to communicate people’s social status. The higher one’s social status, the more colorful their pieces would be. Also, certain stones and craftsmanship was reserved for the community’s royalty.
In Yoruba tradition, kings specifically wore cone shaped veils with strands of beads that were considered a representation of the gods. Their royal attire also had beadings that were an emblem of the ancestors who facilitated communication with the spirit world.
Additionally, jewelry in traditional Africa was worn to convey marital status and they were a crucial part of the courtship and marriage rituals among tribes like the Zulu. Zulu men would wear beads to show commitment and loyalty to women they intended to marry. Beads worn by females also conveyed statuses like; married, unmarried, engaged, uncommitted, has children or has unmarried sisters.
In Maasai culture, when a woman got engaged, she was given a special engagement necklace consisting of two intertwined beaded strands. Then, for her wedding day, she received a heavier wide collar necklace made by her mother to wear for the ceremony.
For spiritual and physical protection, the Algerian Ouled Naḯl women would wear charms to block evil juju and spiked bracelets during dances to fend off inappropriate and overly eager admirers.
The material used to make the jewelry was also as important as any other factor. The ‘water tree’ (coral) was for instance added to the beaded pieces as a life-giving element and protective amulet.
In most of West Africa – like in Ghana, babies were traditionally adorned with waist beads during their naming ceremonies while women generally wore waist beads as a symbol of femininity, fertility, sensuality, and spiritual well-being. The latter is something that is still embraced today by women all over Africa, and worldwide, for aesthetic purposes.
For practical purposes, waist beads were and still are an instrument of body shaping and a means for people watching their weight. This was especially convenient in the absence of scales as a means of weight measurement during the earlier years and centuries.