African jewelry, aside from telling us about aesthetic and artistic tastes, has much to tell us about cult values, social structures and economic and social development.
Ancient ways of adorning the human body survived into much later ages in some parts of Africa and developed into highly specific and exceptionally rich art forms. The oldest indications of the use of jewelry, or personal adornments, date from the late Paleolithic, and in use even today is jewelry made from animal teeth, fruit seeds, straw, string, shells, including snail shells, as well as delicately worked ivory, precious stones, silver and gold. Unworked materials, used as they appear in nature, have retained their traditional place in cultures reaching far into the past and are most often part of adornments entirely related to important events and periods of life, above all childhood, puberty, young adulthood. They do not to any significant degree have anything to do with social prestige or wealth, in contrast to gold, precious stones and ivory, but are important in decorating the body itself, highlighting the beauty of body movements, distinguishing an individual (for hs courage, for instance), or in keeping evil spirits away or adding to the beat of a dance (by their rattle).
The meaning or prestige attached to the various decorative materials used for jewelry merits special mention. Among shell-decorated pieces, those with cowry shells are especially valued. The cowry shell itself was once a form of money, acceptable for payment in trade and commerce, including the purchase and sale of slaves or the purchase of a bride. The most frequent cowry-decorated jewelry are the necklaces and belts worn for ceremonial occasions. Some of the African peoples are especially famous for their works of art with beads of many different material, shapes and colors. In the grave of a ruler found at the archeological site at Ibgo Ukwy, more that one hundred thousand different types of beads were identified, indicative indeed of the immense variety of beads in Africa. Another specific type of jewelry is a bracelet of West Africa, the manila, which can be seen worn as jewelry or may be found in use as a means of payment, circulating like money.
The great wealth of gold accessible from mines and alluvial deposits enabled medieval Africans to use the precious metal for many purposes, not least among them jewelry. Aside from rings, necklaces, and bracelets, the small bits and pieces and figures sewn onto royal garments, especially on headwear and shoes, belong in this ornamental group.
In addition to gold and silver, expensive ivory was used for jewelry. Especially popular for charms, trinkets and small masks, ivory was also widely used for arm and leg bangles.
Combs also belong in the jewelry category. They appear in the largest variety, are most often made of wood, but also of various animal bones including ivory, and are sometimes gold-foil covered. Combs, whether actually intended for combing or to be worn in the hair as ornaments, play an important part in the cultural heritage of Africa. Their shape and the carvings on them identify their place in the multitude of possible roles and meanings attached to combs. In many countries of Africa, the actual combing and dressing of hair has significance and exists in innumerable variations. The symbolism always present may be related to some specific thing, event or occasion. Hairdressing in Africa often amounts to sculpting the hair and the results are veritable works of art. For this reason, some would say that of all the jewelry worn by Africans, that made by hairdressers is the most beautiful.