7 Things You Didn't Know about Maasai Beadwork
At Now Chase the Sun, we create opportunities for artisans in developing countries to reach a global audience. Amongst some of our most popular accessories are our Maasai beaded jewelry. But what exactly is Maasai beadwork? We’ll guide you through seven interesting facts about Maasai beadwork, including where you can find it, the symbolism behind the beads, and how the craft has changed and developed over the years.
What Is Maasai Beadwork?
The Maasai tribe is concentrated in East Africa in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania in the Great Rift Valley region. They are pastoralists who survive by herding livestock and eating milk, meat, honey, and livestock. Women live in manyattas, or small groups of huts, and gather under acacia trees during the evenings to make beaded jewelry. Women perform most of the physical work in a village and only craft beadwork after finishing other daily tasks. It became more popular around the world in the 19th century due to inter-tribal and inter-continental trade.
Where Can You Find Maasai Beadwork
Thanks to brands like Now Chase the Sun, Maasai beadwork is widely available to the general public. You can check out our products like the Naruki Maasai Beaded Bracelet, a geometric design with bold colors, the Naruki Abstract Beaded 3 Tier Statement Necklace, and the Naruki Maasai Collar Necklace. Like the best of Maasai beadwork, our bracelets and necklaces were made in Kenya by artisanal crafters.
Check out more of our beaded accessories here.
What Maasai Beadwork Represents
As a whole, a beaded Maasai collar can represent a village. John Sakuda, a member of the Maasai NGO SIMOO, says, “When you are wearing this, you are carrying the whole village on your body.” Not only beautiful, Maasai jewelry holds special significance because of personal, emotional, and historical value.
Beyond its overall symbolism, intricate details add extra layers of meaning to Maasai jewelry. Different styles and different color beads indicate qualities about the wearer. Unmarried women typically wore flat, beaded disks to indicate gracefulness and women of a higher social class typically wore more colorful beads.
Each color was associated with a loose set of values, including:
- Red: Blood, dauntlessness, unity
- White: Good health, tranquility, pureness
- Bue: Energy
- Green: Fertility
- Black: The struggle of the people
- Yellow: Sun, growth
- Orange: Warmth, togetherness
How Maasai Beadwork Is Made
While Maasai beadwork is worn by both men and women, the craft itself was traditionally performed by women. Learning how to craft beaded jewelry was considered a social duty. Now, however, both men and women use jewelry-making to support their families. Before using imported goods to make beads, the Maasai used dried glass, shells, and seeds. It is made without machinery, and the traditional methodology and meticulous hand-based techniques make these accessories something special.
Types of Maasai Beadwork
Maasai beadwork is typically worn as necklaces, but pendants and bracelets are other popular forms of traditional Maasai jewelry. At Now Chase the Sun, we offer multistrand necklaces, single strand collar necklaces, and bracelets, which are amongst the most traditional forms of Maasai jewelry. These range from simple, monochromatic designs to tiered necklaces with bold architectural features.
In addition to our classic designs, we also offer Maasai beaded accessories for dogs, including dog collars and leashes with unique designs. Maasai beadwork makes dog collars extra durable and unique, adding a touch of artisanship to your daily dog walk.
Find out how we got started at Now Chase the Sun here.
Who Wears Maasai?
Beaded jewelry was used to mark special events, like engagements and weddings. When a bride marries, her mother makes an engagement necklace with intertwined strings to indicate the union between bride and groom. Using a leather circle, cowry shells and a geometric beaded design, she also makes a wedding collar. When community members give gifts to the bride, a new knot is tied - a loose knot for a cow and a tight knot for a goat or sheep.
The most extravagant Maasai collars are worn on a bride’s wedding day, but other women wear complex collar necklaces while dancing. These have a larger diameter than everyday Maasai jewelry and are used to accentuate motion. A dancer may wear many collars stacked in a row, and they soar up and down as she moves.
In terms of the everyday, Maasai men and women both wear beaded pendants that correspond to their age group. Each ten-year range marks a distinct generation’s identical pendants. Aside from these pendants, Maasai beadwork each has a unique design.
How Maasai Has Changed
While the Maasai previously used local resources like clay, wood, copper, brass, and bone to craft beautiful necklaces, jewelry, and other goods, they now also use imported materials. Through trans-Saharan trade and trade with India, they came to acquire Italian Murano beads from as early as 1480 and glass beads from other locations. It also became popular to use Czech beads. Maasai beadwork is not an isolated cultural occurrence, but an intercultural craft that changes as time passes.
At Now Chase the Sun, we pay homage to older traditions by using early methods of dying seeds to create jewelry. Other pieces use newer techniques and materials, like the Naruki Multistrand Glass Bead Necklace.
Now that you’ve read all about Maasai beadwork, check out our line at Now Chase the Sun. Lovingly crafted by artisans based in Kenya, our beaded accessories add unique design to your wardrobe while also providing economic and creative opportunities for the artists. These accessories are just one of our many product lines that celebrate cultural diffusion and honoring history. At Now Chase the Sun, we believe in craftsmanship opportunities as a way to help those in developing nations remain self-sufficient. Participate in sustainably sourced shopping with a cause by checking out our product line here.