To be Tuareg “is to have honor and to be honest.” – Elhadji Koumama
The Tuareg are a semi-nomadic people of North Africa who are world-renowned for their gorgeous sterling silver jewelry. Their culture continues to fascinate due to their elegant dress, exquisite ornamentation, refined speech, song, and dance. Some call Tuaregs, “The Blue Men of the Desert,” due to the indigo used to dye the men’s deep blue turbans.
The work of the Koumama family is important to note because they have been preserving and perfecting a twenty-five generation tradition as master jewelers. Until 2004, Mohamed Koumama led the family and has been recognized as one of the most famous Tuareg silversmiths in Africa. His high standards and meticulous eye have set his family apart. Mohamed Koumama’s son, Elhadji Koumama, is the ninth child and now the family patriarch. He is living up to his father’s dream of taking over the family business and creating employment opportunities for his family and village in Niger.
Although Koumama men are “born into the trade,” they serve extensive apprenticeships under the watchful eye of older and more experienced family members. Only after years of meticulous effort do they begin to make jewelry considered suitable for sale under the Koumana name.
Tuareg jewelry is known for its geometric designs and intricate triangular and diamond motifs. All of these intricately carved pieces have significance, including the popular crosses, which often have protective symbolism. Some believe that the arms of the cross will disperse all evil, keeping one out of harms way. A circle typically represents the eye of a chameleon; a half circle, the moon; and cross hatching, crocodile teeth.
This jewelry is made by a subclass of Tuareg men called “Inaden.” The name loosely translates at “smith,” people who work with fire, metals and other materials. These jewelers have a reputation for holding special powers because of the way they handle fire. They easily reach into the flames where they retrieve mounds of clay, which are eventually broken, revealing a piece of silver. This metal piece is finished with a file and finely etched. This process is known as the “lost wax method.”
Elhadji travels internationally, bringing this jewelry to the world, stimulating the economy back home in Niger. Droughts, flooding, and famine have caused intense suffering in Niger but Ehadji remains hopeful, as this craft has been a powerful tool for change.
Paulette Walther and Tom McPhail represent the Koumama jewelry coop and have been advocating beautiful art for good causes for more than six years. Because of their support, the Koumama’s jewelry has been featured in traveling displays all over the world, including well-known museums such as The Smithsonian Institution, The National Museum of African Art, and The Fowler Museum. If you plan to visit the Santa Fe International Art Festival this summer, be sure to stop by and see Elhadji at his booth and speak with him in person.