• Jewellery is a prized part of women’s wardrobes, both on special occasions and daily
• It crowns their outfits and boosts self-worth, even as it raises fears of being mugged
Face masks may have stolen the shine from lipstick, but jewellery is still in vogue. And while women’s beauty armour stretches from hair to shoes, clothes to handbag, jewellery is the clincher to that “sophisticated look”.
These ornaments are not exclusive to women. You will find men dripping with ‘bling’ in the American rap scene. But generally, more women buy jewellery than men.
At the mention of this adornment, three words come to fashionista Jolly Mukangu’s mind: Prestige. Femininity. Power.
“Jewellery makes me feel more beautiful and elegant in public. This gives me a higher self-esteem,” she says.
Jewellery makes me feel more beautiful and elegant in public. This gives me a higher self-esteemJolly Mukangu
Mukangu, a reproductive health expert, rocks a silver chain and studs on weekdays in the office. But when she wants to let her hair down, she turns to contemporary African jewellery.
This is mostly chunky neckpieces and bracelets, whose beads and colours she loves, as well as embroidered pieces.
She wears the right jewellery for the right occasion, and in moderation lest it “ruin” her outfit. “I like the way it highlights my personality and best features.”
Her go-to place for the accessories is Dubois Fashion in town, whose variety lures her. As for the silver chains and studs, she gets them from major suppliers, mostly in Eastleigh estate.
Editor Victoria Graham denies she is obsessed with jewellery, but she has a boxful from her travels. She goes to work loaded with bangles, earrings and necklaces.
Her jewellery carries lots of memories. It reminds her of wonderful and some not-so-wonderful experiences.
She counts among her collection African trade beads, Middle Eastern cuffs, carved Tibetan silver, Mexican dragons… As well as pieces made from jade, glass, ceramics, even beads with little faces.
“I love them because they are unusual. I need someone to help me string,” she says.
Graham, who is from the US, has amassed her pieces from China, India, Thailand and the Middle East, as well as here in Kenya, where she previously worked with the UN. “I drag them around the world with me.”
She buys them on the street, from craft fairs, ethnic groups and art and craft shops, such as Kazuri, Banana Box and Spinners Web.
She once bought from a desperate family in Iraq. Jewellery had been in their family but they needed to flee. “Life was tough in Baghdad and people were leaving. I struck up a friendship with a woman from an old family and she begged me to buy some jewellery, including an exquisite silver bangle with intricate carvings and a crescent moon.”
Locally, a trip upcountry yielded colourful pieces from Samburu women. “I think there’s great jewellery in Africa, especially crafts and antiques,” Graham says.
Jewellery has been a fashion statement since time immemorial, but it is also big business. The global jewellery market was valued at $278 billion (Sh30 trillion) in 2018 and expected to balloon to $480 billion (Sh52 trillion) by 2025. The largest jewellery markets in the world are China, US, Japan and India.
For journalist Nabila Hatimy, jewellery is part and parcel of her culture, specifically weddings.
“My gold was my dowry, it is what I asked for,” Hatimy says. She comes from the Coast, which is renowned for its colourful Swahili weddings.
Locals buy the jewellery from Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. If they can’t travel, most of the time they get it from the oldest goldsmith in Mombasa, called Sonara Buddha. That’s where she got hers, she says, adding that one can also be gifted by family.
If I have any special attachment to a necklace, for example, if someone bought it for me, I wear it all through. I do not remove itGlenn Yunuk
“The significance is historical. We (Arabs) have a special relation to gold. For ornaments, for wealth, for investment. I use it for the latter. Because the gold is usually the woman’s. If she’s ever in a financial fix, the gold is a way out.”
But that, she says, is for extreme cases. Mostly, it is used for the cultural significance and wealth.
And it is not just a wedding ring. “We are talking sets. Necklace, rings, bangles and so on. My cousins in Yemen must have a golden belt made for them for their wedding dresses. Some even go as far as anklets,” Hatimy says.
While procurement graduand Glenn Yunuk does not usually wear jewellery, she also likes it. “Every lady loves a sophisticated look,” she says.
The motivation, she says, varies with each person. “They complement what we wear. Some wear because they look good. Some just love them, so they buy them. And others buy certain accessories because of class.”
She herself loves Indian bracelets. Her choice of necklace is determined by her outfit. “However, if I have any special attachment to a necklace, for example, if someone bought it for me, I wear it all through. I do not remove it.”
Ednah Bonai, a statistician, buys whatever jewellery catches her eye. She stocked up from hawkers in Ngara and wears earrings, bangles and necklaces most days.
“I don’t do make-up, I do jewellery. My way of thinking, make-up is just chemicals; they have long-term effects. On the other hand, jewellery can’t affect you in any way,” she says.
Something about the prettiness of jewels and how they enhance beauty is what drives her to invest in them. “I can’t even explain,” Bonai says with a laugh.
American singer Eartha Kitt once said, “Jewellery, to me, is a pain in the derrière, because you have to be watching it all the time.”
Mukangu admits to this security risk. What makes her feel more confident also makes her insecure.
“When I’m wearing my silver or gold chains, I want to hide it from people, especially in the streets, to avoid it being snatched,” the fashionista says.
To reduce the fear, she doesn’t walk around town dressed in such jewellery, but instead when going to work, where she’ll be either in the car or in the office for the better part of the day.
Though she has an extensive collection, Graham says hers is “not the kind of things people like to snatch”.
“People wouldn’t rip off rustic-looking trade beads. Rather, glittery stuff,” she says.
Hatimy didn’t wear her gold to her wedding, and says in fact, most people no longer wear gold to weddings because of security.
“There was a trend of attacking Arab weddings in Mombasa at one point because of the amount of gold women wore,” she says.
Yunuk says “of course” jewellery would make her feel insecure, but adds that it depends with where she is.
Bonai, on the other hand, never feels insecure. “They [thugs] steal phones and purses,” she says.
Nairobi-based jeweller Benadatte Kaggwa acknowledges the safety concerns. But the Nnunji designs owner says women know how to work around that issue.
“I believe every woman knows when and where to wear her priciest pieces. She would know which ones to wear when in insecure public areas. Fear of mugging shouldn’t be a deterrent.”