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  • Writer's picturekimber elements

How we're preserving traditional handicraft

African beaded jewelry is much more than adornment. For hundreds of years the maasai people have been using beadwork to embody their culture. Jewelry is not only used to represent wealth, beauty, and strength, it’s also used as a visual narrative to show the wearer’s age, if they are married, and how many children they have. The older and wiser the woman is, the more jewelry she adorns.

Colors also hold rich cultural significance and different tribes use a different color palette. For example, the maasai tribe in Tanzania primarily use black and white beads, while the maasai tribe in Kenya is famously recognizable for their use of primary-colored beads. For the Kenya maasai, red represents the strength of sacred animals; blue symbolizes energy; green is for the land that sustains; and yellow is for growth and opportunity.

While kimber elements works closely with our Kenyan maasai artisans to design our seasonal collections, our color choices tend to be minimal and neutral, with our first few collections focusing on a canvas of white with occasional pops of black, gold and grey. Although it’s not using their traditional tribal colors, we do this for three reasons.

The first reason is to make our products as unique as our partnership. Kimber elements’ designs evolve out of an ongoing dialogue and a melding of our strengths. I bring a metalsmith and jewelry design background which is inspired by simple geometric patterns, and the maasai designers bring their traditional handicraft that is inspired by storytelling and their rich cultural history which also uses geometric patterns.

The second reason is to make our products timeless. We don’t follow seasonal trends, Pantone color of the year, and fast fashion. Our products are handmade by real people who honor and preserve their traditional craft. We’re not a supply chain and we don’t mass produce pieces in large volumes that are out of fashion in 6 months. We want our neutral designs to be loved, adorned, and last with your changing wardrobe.

The third reason is to make our products attractive to a global market. This can be perceived that we’re whitewashing a traditional craft or perpetuating chromophobia (an intense fear of color). We get a lot of questions from our customers about the cultural significance of indigenous adornment and asking if it would be cultural appropriation to wear them if you’re not massai. This is great! As a consumer, you should be asking these questions to determine whether something is an act of cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation. It comes down to acknowledgement and respect. Always ask and learn about the cultural significance of the item to determine if it’s appropriate for you to adorn it. Our artisans love sharing the significance behind our beaded products and we invite people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities to wear our ethically-made beaded jewelry with pride.

In the fashion industry, there’s a fine line of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, which can often lead to the dominant culture borrowing and exploiting the marginalized culture. We are committed to upholding the dignity of our artisans by celebrating their cultural techniques and traditions. By connecting them to a market of socially conscious customers, we are preserving their craft and sharing their stories. ​​

Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey.

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