For generations the Koumama’s, a family of nomadic Tuareg silversmiths, traveled the Sahara selling their work. In the 1970’s, droughts caused Mohamed Koumama to settle his family in Agadez, Niger, but the jewelry his family made changed very little. Silversmithing is a hereditary trade and the senior Koumama passed his skills along to his sons and grandsons. It was his ninth son and the 25th generation of silversmiths in the family, Elhadji Koumama, who began traveling again, taking the family's work first to Nigeria, then to Europe, and since 2001, the United States.
Now the family patriarch, Elhadji is a consummate artist with an eye for design and detail. Observing closely what his American customers were wearing, he returned home after each trip inspired by what he saw. Elhadji brought new ideas to his extended network of silversmiths who work under the name Koumama Family Collective. Excited by the new possibilities, these artisans sit around now, good-naturedly jesting about who can make the most pleasing jewelry for the American market, each trying to outdo the others in quality and complexity of the design.
Through this process the work has gradually evolved. Older, more traditional Tuareg jewelry was angular, often incorporating triangles representing a good eye that would ward off the influences of the round-shaped evil eye. For an American audience, the evil eye is less of a concern. Curves are now common, supplanting some of the strong angularity of protective triangles. The engraving of the jewelry has become far more detailed. Elhadji's uses ninety-nine percent pure fine silver instead of sterling because he believes the impurities in sterling are bad for a person's health. Fine silver has another advantage as well. It is softer than sterling and makes it possible for the artisans to engrave increasingly complex designs with simple hand tools. Ebony and semi-precious stones are used more often, adding color to the bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
The success of the jewelry in the Unites States has yielded spectacular results in Niger. The Koumama Family Collective now has forty silversmiths in Agadez and Niamey plus apprentices, polishers, sanders and beaders. Around 200 people are involved in production. Elhadji hopes to see this grow soon to 50 silversmiths. Despite its name, the collective has extended beyond the Koumama family and even beyond the Tuareg. Elhadji, glad to offer training and employment to those who need it, now includes non-Tuareg in jewelry production.
Leather work has always been the domain of the women in silversmithing families. The women in his family are also finding markets for their hand-sewn purses in the U.S.
One of the biggest changes is in the education of the children. Although his parents were fearful about sending Elhadji to school, they sent him anyway. He became the first in his family to get a formal education. Because of the success of the jewelry in the U.S., all the artisans' children now have schooling available to them. Each day after school, the youngsters come home to participate in the family business. They are learning to be world class silversmiths, but they are also preparing for the choices of a modern world.
Elhadji’s beautiful, skillfully crafted jewelry has been so well received by his American audience that he now comes to the United States twice a year. He brings his work to craft galleries and fairs, wholesale shows and museums. This year he spent the summer zig-zagging across the United States, but will return in October for the International Artisans Fair in San Antonio.
For more about Elhadji, visit www.tuaregjewelry.com
Ann Schunior is a studio potter whose work is inspired by traditional crafts around the world. Ann travels widely to meet craftspeople who still work in the old ways. For more about Ann, visit her website, www.annspottery.com.