Jewelry Development with Maasai Women in Tanzania

I knew that I wanted to travel abroad. But I was not sure where I wanted to go and for what purpose. While contemplating these ideas from Rhode Island, I received a message from an old friend in Hong Kong about a position teaching jewelry lessons in Tanzania. (It seemed as though word had traveled through a chain of people all across the world before reaching me.) The opportunity surprised me; I had not considered traveling to East Africa, but it was certainly intriguing. The project, headed by UNESCO, would entail teaching a group of 20 Maasai women in a remote region of Tanzania, bordering the Serengeti. I mulled over the idea and realized that I could not turn down such a unique opportunity. The thought of experiencing a remote tribal culture in an environment so drastically different from my home made me both nervous and excited.

I had previously worked in the jewelry industry for about 6 years and although this was an activity of my past, my knowledge and ability of the craft stuck with me. I had worked in a number of different jewelry making stores and traveled to many conferences for both learning and teaching, so my experience with the art spanned a range of techniques. Still, teaching beadwork in the states is very different than educating the Maasai on how to develop their craft. Additionally, the Maasai are in many ways expert artists! For women in their culture, beadwork is a practiced skill and jewelry adornments are believed to represent beauty. Both men and women adorn their bodies with colorful artwork- on their ankles, wrists, waists, necks, and even stretched earlobes.

I did not want to change their traditional style. It is an integral part of their culture, filled with symbols that have a range of meanings. The ultimate goal in a project like this is, of course, sales; the Maasai living in these remote villages aim to sell their artwork to visiting tourists. For tourists, an appreciation of Maasai jewelry may not necessarily align with a desire to wear. Thus, it is important that the jewelry includes a certain amount of western influence so that it is both fashionable and comfortable, while retaining distinct cultural features. My observations of Maasai jewelry led me to focus mainly on the development of clasps and closures. Oftentimes the beadwork itself is beautiful and well-made, but a necklace may be secured by plastic string or a bracelet affixed by a sharp, bent wire. This plan aligned with one of my favorite techniques to teach- wire forging. I enjoyed so much teaching the women to use hammers to forge their own clasps from wire. I think they enjoyed it too!

Here are some photos from our jewelry classes in Ololosokwan Village, Loliondo, Tanzania.

Our class on wire-wrapped rings
Me and my students
Learning to forge wire with a hammer
Learning to use pliers for wire-working.
Our wire wrapping class where we connected beads into a chain necklace
Learning to make hammered s-hook clasps for necklaces.
Our class on wire-wrapped rings, which we learned to make in a range of sizes.
I also taught them how to hammer earwires for custom earring designs



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