One of the things I loved about teaching anthropology at Scad, was exploring adornment and culture. The students loved learning more about how material culture gives us clues about our belief systems and diverse histories. In this case, anthropology opened up a discourse concerning diversity, status, gender, and jewelry. My training was in indigenous cultures and visual anthropology as well.
Jewelry is such an important aspect of culture. Many cultures use jewelry to indicate status, gender cues, clan affiliation, and for monetary means as well. Women in patrilineal cultures have traditionally used jewelry to survive, storing and hiding pieces to be used easily and converted to money during times of war or strive. Cultures value different stones, woods, and materials. One of my favorite examples of this, that I came into contact with while living in Brazil, was the Blanagandan. This piece of jewelry represents the encounter between Portuguese culture and Africans in Brazil. This sad, but rich history, began when slaves were brought to Brazil after many of the enslaved indigenous populations started to die of disease. With them, they brought the beliefs of the many tribes and cultures which they originated from, such as the Yoruba.
The original Balangandans were made of the precious metal silver, at the end of the 17th century with their popularity gaining in the 18th-19th century. These pieces of jewelry had a direct relationship to status and monetary wealth or value. There are both Christian and African symbols in the construction of the jewelry. One can recognize properties of divination and symbols straight from Africa, merged here in the balangandan (it has been suggested that this word referred to the sound made when worn). However, it may be more likely related to African linguistic origins.
Specifically, Balangandans were worn by freed slaves and some slaves whom the ‘owners’ favored, but because these pieces had more references to Africa and non Catholic elements they were used or worn in more specific situations, than they “creole or freed slave gold jewelry”. However, it is really important to emphasize that these were objects of jewelry that were indeed negotiated by the African women themselves. They control their image and status using these objects, which also included fine earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings of gold. This is something that did not happen visually obvious for North American freed slaves. Brazilian Creolo women and freed slaves obtained a status that showed in the women of Bahia and their gold jewelry. It was stacked sky high both inside and outside the house, when the occasion was correct. This was especially the case of the freed creole women, whose wealth grew as they were sought out by Catholic women for spiritual advice and secret solutions of non Catholic origin. They were paid for such services and their status often grew. Many were practicing a form of Candomblé, yet keeping Catholicism in some aspects. Another important detail to realize is that these Balangandans were not necklaces, but belts where charms were personalized and added for the purposes of the wearer.
Probably one of the best sources in the world is the Museum of Carlos Costa Pinto in Salvador. Their text which was published for a collection exhibit which contained “creole” and slave jewelry is in Portuguese, and has many historically rich details. The text discusses how the overall exaggerated use of layers of jewelry used by women in Bahia, led to Carmen Miranda’s persona and accessories styling. They discuss the possibility of slave women also earning enough jewelry to in some instances buy freedom. The jewelry’s relationship to the women is complex as suggested by this quote:
“A opulencia e um ultima instancia, uma exteriorização de luxo e riqueza, mesmo podendo dar uma impressao falso de que a exibe. Joias de rainha para mulheres do povo, livres ou escravas. Joias atraentes, capazes de sinalizar poder e distinção” ( O que e que a Bahia tem, 56. Ourivesaria do Museu Carlos Costa Pinto) Simone Trindade. Translation: This opulence, is an instance where the appearance of luxury and riches is possible to at the same time, give one a false impression of what they are exhibiting. Jewelry fit for a queen, but instead used by poorer women free or enslaved.
Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006.The jewelry of these women also included gold pieces, like huge cuffs and necklaces, also bearing a mix of Catholic and African references. This was particularly the case in 1881, when slaves were freed and such precious metals came to symbolize power in freedom. In some ways, it was important to have some relationship to the dominant religion, while at the same time hiding certain beliefs in the symbolism. The Balangandan is made up of the chain, thicker usually used as a belt, the “nave” or charm holder, and the charms. It was very specific to the user, charms chosen according to what they needed or valued. It seems that there was a use for specific charms alone versus the entire Balangandan, which was also negotiated when needed. The Balangandan had a mystic and religious function and was not publicly demonstrated as much as the gold bracelets and such. Older women of status would bring them out specifically for festivals or gatherings as well. They seem to be tied to wealth, whereas the Balangandan is more tied to use and status. Although there are some more commonly used symbols intact, many referencing male and female aspects as well:
fish-reference to Jesus and ample food
The Key-control, access to that which is locked.
Tooth- to take on the properties of the animal and to protect
Figa to ward off evil, popular in Brazil ( North African and Mediterranean origin)
Pages 64-65 of the Museum booklet found at Carlos Costa Pinto describes the symbols in more detail.
Repro pieces made for tourists after the 19th century are often brass and examples from the 50s look like necklaces in silver metals, smaller scale-usually uniform in materials, thin tin metals, and caste construction in some cases. In terms of the older rarer examples there are ways to tell, such as the maker’s marks, style of construction, and material. This rich iconography continues to be a big part of the culture of the area and is a fascinating example of gender, women’s roles and the power of jewelry as a symbol.