Monday, March 29, 2010

Hand Carved African Zulu Button Necklace

Recently a friend of mine, who also happens to be a client, gave me a handful of buttons that were brought to her directly from Africa, by a girlfriend who had visited there, some years back.
These are facial mask buttons from the Zulu Tribal peoples, they are hand carved and the interesting thing is, the back of each button has also been carved in such a way that allows the button to rest flush against whatever textile it has been sewn onto. There are about 8 buttons, each alike, though each separately hand carved so there are slight differences, minute as they are.

After she gave them to me I felt that the most honorable thing I could do, in return, was to give her the very first thing that I made from them. And since they are so unique, using them as a button just didn't seem fitting. So I made one into a necklace.

In doing so, I tried to find out more history and background information about them. I have searched the internet; looking for African Mask style buttons (they are each styled in the shape of a mask, a face mask), and to date I can find nothing like them.

When my client came in for her recent haircut we discussed these super unique buttons and she seemed surprised when I told her I couldn't find anything about this style. She knows that they were sold in a store in Africa, probably a curio shoppe targeted toward tourism. But they were purchased back in the '90s, by her friend when she traveled throughout Africa, and she knows and can confirm that they are Zulu.

I do believe that she will have more information for me when she comes in for her next haircut, and I have some specific questions to ask. I have the suspicion that this is going to be an ongoing quest for me.
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To make her a necklace I returned to Africa, virtually, to one of my African suppliers, and purchased some Krobo sand glass* beads in two colors, pale water blue and a muted purple.


I also purchased some wonderful black vulcanite wafer thin rubber disks, that when lined up side by side, appear like a thick black cord.

One of the problems I ran into when it came time to incorporate the button into the form of a necklace pendant was the convex/concave custom system that was originally incorporated into the rear side of the button, since it has carved to lie falt against material.

Being made of wood, and my not knowing their actual age, I was taking no chances of having the constant movement of a chain or anything that would suspend the button, cause stress or friction on a wooden material that might get more and more brittle as time passes by.

So it was up to me to create something that might hold the button stationary. The button has no button holes but rather it was made by carving out a vertical eye hole that protrudes out the backside of the button.

My medium was Sterling Silver, though this was an American choice as Sterling might not be a metal used in this area of Africa. Yellow metals are incorporated into a lot of jewelery, and has, in the past been used as a type of trade or money and is commonly worn on the body as jewelry, call it a body wallet, and as a form of security. Silver has a different connotation and belief system in some tribal areas. I chose silver merely because it was based on the color palette of our local area and my client's choice of metals that flatter her silver white hair.

I look forward to making more jewelry from these gorgeous wooden buttons. and I hope to discover the type and source of the wood and perhaps even find more beads similar in style and age to these beads.

*from the Krobo people of Ghana, West Africa; a dry powder glass bead. Finely ground and powdered glass is funneled into vertical molds made from the local clays. Straw or cassava leaf stems are inserted to make the bead holes and when fired in wood burning kilns the mold burns away leaving unique and beautiful glass beads.