A copper-alloy adornment, this necklace was created in the ancient center of Jenne. Jenne's central location on numerous pivotal trade routes contributed to its prosperity and the development of a complex and highly urbanized social structure. Copper metallurgy is believed to be an important antecedent to the iron technologies that were transforming West Africa and the Mande kingdom during this period. Terracotta figures from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from this region depict individuals wearing similar items of jewelry.
In West Africa, jewelry is worn for multiple purposes beyond mere adornment. It can be used to indicate one's role in society, as having a particular profession or rank, as well as to indicate belonging to a specific family, clan, or village. A form of wealth, it is also intrinsically valuable and therefore worn by itinerants who must travel with all their worldly possessions. Often there are particular recognizable motifs worn by women who have had children, thus indicating the wearer's successful completion of her fundamental role in society.
Jewelry among contemporary Mande peoples is often commissioned by patrons in response to the advice of a diviner. Like other amulets made by smiths, the jewelry is embedded with spiritual power and is intended to assist the wearer with specific concerns, for example, to increase fertility, to deter accidents, for financial gain, to cure or prevent diseases, to inspire love, and so on. Metal is believed to naturally contain high levels of nyama, or life forces, and is therefore particularly powerful in the production of medicinal amulets.
The bells on the necklace are of the type believed capable of being heard by spirits, ringing in both worlds, that of the ancestors and the living. Mande hunters often wear a single bell that can be easily silenced when stealth is necessary. Women, on the other hand, often wear multiple bells, referring to concepts of community, since the bells ring harmoniously together.
Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass, New York, until 1998