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  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

Good as Gold

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

Gem gals! There’s an amazing museum exhibition that opened recently, and it’s all about gold jewelry! But not just gold. Gold filigree! Perhaps I haven’t shared yet, but I am IN LOVE with filigree! In fact, one of my directions to my now-husband was that my wedding ring MUST have filigree. (If you’re interested in seeing my wedding ring, click here.)


So, if you are in or near the Washington, D.C. area, I highly encourage you to head over to the National Museum of African Art (NMAA). And you’re in for a treat, because Good As Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women will be there through the end of September. And because it’s part of the Smithsonian, it’s FREE!




What is filigree?

Filigree is a delicate and intricate jewelry design technique. Its use goes back to ancient times, at least 2500 B.C., and uses threads and strands of metal to create unique designs. They end up almost looking like lace, but made of metal.  The word filigree actually comes from the Latin word “filum,” which means thread. You can use gold or silver or other metals like brass to make filigree designs.


silver filigree jewelry
Some beautiful examples of filigree in silver

The exciting thing about the exhibit is that I had always thought I knew who made filigree. I had always heard of filigree being made in Portugal, or India. Even the island of Malta. Never had I heard of artisans from Senegal. This is why I love museums – I’m always learning something new!


Examples of lace-like filigree jewelry
Some examples of filigree jewelry, you can see how it looks like lace.

The exhibit

Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women, is an exhibit showcasing jewelry from the master goldsmiths of Senegal.  Don’t feel bad, I had to consult my globe to figure out where exactly Senegal was, too!

This map shows that  Senegal is located on the coast of Africa.
Senegal is located on the coast of Africa.

This is the first major exhibition of Senegalese gold jewelry ever to focus on how the women of the country used gold to adorn themselves, as well as the history of gold in the region.


The bulk of the collection on display comes from art historian Marian Ashby Johnson. She gave a gift of over 250 jewelry pieces in 2012. She and her husband lived in Senegal for several years. Marian was horrified to discover goldsmiths were melting down old pieces for more modern designs. Appalled at the destruction of art, she bought up as much as she possibly could, over many, many years. To this day, she regrets she wasn’t able to buy more. The rest of the collection comes from other museums and private collectors. All in all, it looks like something I need to see!


Gold filigree bracelet, from Marian Ashby Johnson
A gold filigree bracelet, just one of the items from Marian Ashby Johnson (image courtesy of NMAA)


The power of women

While I was reading up about the exhibit, two words kept popping up – signares and sañse.  Signares were local Senegalese women who married the Europeans. The Europeans, typically from France or Portugal, did not bring their wives or were unmarried. The wives lived an upper class existence, often speaking many many languages and very savvy about business and politics. The other word – sañse – means “dressing up” or “feeling good.” It’s a word from one of the local languages, Wolof.


Essentially, the signares were expert at sañse. The signares existed over generations. They lived a life between between two competing cultures – traditional African and European. So they created a unique blend of fashion. They had beautiful European dresses, but also brightly colored African fabrics, and heavy gold embellishments. Gold signified wealth, so the more gold, the better!


Signare’s ensemble created for the Smithsonian by Oumou Sy, fashion designer from Senegal
A signare’s ensemble created for the Smithsonian by Oumou Sy, a fashion designer from Senegal (image courtesy of NMAA)

Sañse was all about presenting your best public self. It included jewelry, but also your hairstyle, your headscarf, your clothing, etc. A wealthy signare often had a house with three floors, where the bottom floor was was essentially devoted to goldsmiths and seamstresses for their extensive wardrobe and jewelry. I think I would like an arrangement like that!



Slavery

You’ve probably figured out by now that the Europeans were in Senegal and making a tidy profit because of the slave trade. The trans-Atlantic slave trade went on for hundreds of years, from the late 1400’s all the way to the 1800’s. So these fashionable women and their gorgeous jewelry were part of that story. Their husbands were likely involved in the slave trade in some capacity.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate these women or the beautiful jewelry they wore? I don’t think so. I’m a big believer of placing everything in context. The truth is that how a woman presented herself back then way was key to her success, both financial and social. A woman with elaborate jewelry and clothing shows that she is cared about and connected, and that was a powerful statement to make.


Beautiful filigree from Portugal's Rota do Ouro
Another beautiful filigree example from Portugal's Rota do Ouro

Take a trip!

I am already plotting my trip to our capital before this exhibit closes. What about you? Interested? Already visited? Tell me, I’d love to hear what you think!

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