On our way to work in the morning, many of us stop to pick up a cup of coffee. Jewelers in West Africa, on the other hand, go by way of the village market where they pick up a small bag of charcoal. The first task of the day is to start a fire in their forge, a jeweler’s-size version of something we see in a blacksmith’s shop. Scraps of silver or nickel-based coins are put into a small handmade crucible, the hand crank blower fans the fire, and within minutes they have created an ingot.
From these crude bars the jewelers of Niger, Senegal, and other West African countries will create rings, bracelets, earrings, and pendants of stunning beauty. They will do it with the effortless grace of skilled athletes and they will do it with nothing more than a few basic tools, many of which they have made themselves. It is a thrill to watch.
Canadian jeweler Matthieu Cheminée lived in Mali for three years, visiting workshops, befriending jewelers, and working alongside them. After returning to Canada, he traveled to Africa at least twice a year to visit his friends and expand his research. A skilled photographer, he took thousands of photos, hoping to one day pull all his experiences together so they could be shared. The result is a book, just published by Brynmorgen Press, called Legacy: Jewelry Techniques of West Africa.
It was my pleasure to work on this book with Matthieu and to travel with him to Senegal. I think this book provides something quite new, something that has been missing from previous books about the fascinating jewelry of Africa. In addition to showing us tools and techniques, this book invites us into the workshops and lives of contemporary jewelers. It includes profiles of about a dozen jewelers, each in more detail than we have room for here, but let me offer a couple of excerpts.
Ousmane Mahmoud is a 44-year old Mauritanian jeweler. He was born into the metalworking caste and learned jewelry techniques as a young boy from his grandfather, father, and uncles. Political unrest has forced him to move several times, and when it was impossible to make a living in his trade, he spent five years as a local guide, taking tourists on camel rides through the desert. Eventually he was able to return to his first love, and by traveling from one region to another he was able to make a good living selling his jewelry. At this point he fell in love with a woman who was not from his caste; he refused his father’s orders, married for love, and was cut off from the family and its resources. Happily married, he now has two young children—his face lights up when he speaks of his family and his homeland.
We met Mahmoud in the city of Saint-Louis in northern Senegal. He leaves his family in Mauritania for a couple months at a time to come to this city where he is able to sell a few pieces of jewelry each week. When he cannot stand the absence any longer, he uses his hard-earned money to buy clothing and toys for his family and takes the half-day bus trip home to spend a few days with them.
As I write this I have on my wrist a forged bracelet that Mahmoud made as I watched. With a tiny forge, a stake, and a hammer, he created as fine a bracelet as any I’ve seen. In addition to those tools, he has a pair of hardware store pliers and a graver that belonged to his grandfather. When not with his family, he works and sleeps in a cardboard enclosure on the street.
Ibrahima Condé’s life as a jeweler began at thirteen when he reunited with his mother who had divorced his father years before; for the previous five years he was being trained as a mechanic. She had remarried, this time to a jeweler, and he agreed to take Ibrahima on as apprentice. After two years of this, his mother forced him to return to the trade of an auto mechanic, thinking it would provide a more stable income. Fate intervened, as he says, when his intended master died in a hunting accident and he was able to continue his training in jewelry. For the next nine years, Ibrahima lived and worked in a one-room shop, sleeping on the floor to guard against robbers at night.
After spending several years making chains, he learned to create filigree and this is his specialty today. Now 58 years old, Ibrahima lives in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. He typically works about ten hours a day, but sometimes lingers after the market has closed. He says, “I love the tranquility of the night, when I can work without being disturbed.” But working behind closed doors has its drawbacks—with a hot tin roof and fumes from soldering, temperatures can reach up to 110 degrees, even at night.
People reading this blog post have probably bought more tools this month than many jewelers in West Africa will own in their lifetimes. That is not meant to be dramatic or exaggerated—it is simply true. During an apprenticeship that will last seven or eight years, the would-be jeweler will use tools that belong to his master, and then only when his teacher is away from the shop on errands or late at night. When the apprentice leaves to set up his own workshop or seek employment in another shop, he will take a toolbox that might contain a pair of pliers, a saw frame, a graver made from a worn needle file, and a hammer.
It is worth pausing here to make it clear that this is not seen as a hardship, though of course every jeweler wants more and better tools. I never heard a complaint or even the suggestion that someone wanted something from me. And that brings us to The Toolbox Initiative. In his years of travel, Matthieu developed the habit of giving tools or small silver ingots to his hosts. This was not a quid pro quo—a payment for the instruction and hospitality that are universal in West Africa—these things are freely given, no strings attached. But I saw firsthand a young jeweler dance with joy when he was given a small drawplate. In ways we cannot easily envision, that gift will change his life for years to come.
Despite good intentions, large organizations have trouble bringing meaningful change to the Third World. Layers of bureaucracy sometimes mean that the benefits intended do not reach the people who need them most. We’d like to change that.
With the help of Rio Grande, we have created a program called Toolbox Initiative to funnel tools and silver to known individual jewelers of West Africa. We begin with the premise that jewelers around the world are sensitive, large-hearted people. That sounds like you, right? We also know that our urge to contribute to the global community is sometimes blunted by not knowing what to do or how best to do it. Understandable.
The Toolbox Initiative will collect new and used tools and silver scrap and get it into the hands of African jewelers. It’s that simple. If you have duplicate or unused tools in good condition, send them to one of us; you can learn how to get them directly to one of us on Toolbox Initiative’s website. If you have a jar of silver scrap you’ve been meaning to deal with, send it to one of us. If you prefer to make a monetary donation through PayPal, you can do so here, and I will place an order with Rio Grande and hand-select the tools I know are most needed for these jewelers (and Rio has offered to ship everything I purchase for The Toolbox Initiative to me for free!). I will then get these tools to Africa, guaranteed. We are not a recognized 501(c)(3) organization so tax benefits to do not apply, but you can be confident that every penny of your gift will get there. We take no expenses and certainly no profit. This is the gift we give to our friends—making the world a better place, one jeweler to another.