What Does “Tribal Jewelry” Really Mean?

Using the terms “tribal” and “ethnic” accurately in your jewelry designs

by Chelsea Clarey.


Trade Goods Memory Bracelet by Chelsea Clarey

Trade Goods Memory Bracelet
by Chelsea Clarey

In addition to being a jewelry artist, I’m an anthropology major, and one of the consequences of taking these classes is that you start seeing things in layers that you never really thought about before.

You should hear me go on and on about material-culture representation in Disney movies!

But lately I’ve been thinking about jewelry terms, and “tribal jewelry” has caught my attention.

“Tribal Style” in the
Fashion Industry

“Tribal style” is a major runway trend in the past couple of years.

Bright colors, bold chunky pieces, lots of wood, ceramic, zebra and giraffe prints, kente cloth, batik, caftans, earth tones, flowing peasant blouses, trade beads and large statement pieces are all part of the style branded “tribal,” or sometimes “ethnic.”

You’ll also see particularly bright, zany or mixed-media pieces often marked as “tribal”.

Greven Hill Necklace by Chelsea Clarey

Greven Hill Necklace
by Chelsea Clarey


What Does “Tribal” Really Mean?

The problem is that “tribal” is a loaded term.

I, like many other jewelry artists, use it in my online descriptions, but I try to use it thoughtfully.

“Tribe” is a word with a very specific meaning to sociologists / anthropologists / prehistorians; depending on which system you use, it’s either a group with a specific type of kin structure or the level of civilization two or three places below the city-state. It also refers to the Native American ethnic groups in the United States.

Those with an ear for political correctness can immediately see the problem here: When we say “tribal,” what are we referring to?

Even in scholarly disciplines, the word stereotypes not one but many groups of people who identify themselves or are identified by the word.

When we describe tribal jewelry as pleasingly primitive, bright and fun, pleasantly unrefined, are we extending that to tribal people?

I think the answer to that question is usually no, or at least not consciously, and also that common usage has to override perfect political correctness if we are to understand each other!

But I also think we should be aware of the possible effects of our wording, so it’s best to educate ourselves about the ways we use these words.

So, to that end, here are a few things to remember and to apply to other uses:

Using “Tribal”, “Bali”, and “Ethnic”

  • “Tribal silver” can mean either Hill Tribe Silver, which is beautiful artwork from the hills of Thailand, or a silver object that the maker sees as falling under the vague description “tribal.”Ask for clarification; Hill Tribe Silver truly is high-quality, beautiful artisan work.
  • “Bali silver” is often used in conjunction with tribal jewelry. It’s inaccurate unless the item in question is actually from a craftsman or craftswoman in Bali.The artists have the right to keep their traditional art form proprietary to the island of Bali; “Bali-style” or “Bali loop” is a way to describe imitations.
  • “Ethnic” is used synonymously with “tribal,” but it correctly describes something made by OR reminiscent of a specific ethnic group.Look for assertions that the item is made by an ethnic craftsman if you want items that are authentic – though remember that how a craftman defines authenticity is a whole different kettle of worms.
  • “Ethnic-style” jewelry usually just means that the piece was inspired by a specific culture.
Innkeeper's Candle Pendant by Chelsea Clarey

Innkeeper’s Candle Pendant
by Chelsea Clarey


Purchasing “Ethnic” or “Tribal”
Jewelry and Supplies

When purchasing jewelry, beads, or components, it is always acceptable to ask for clarification if terms are slightly misleading.

Follow up with sellers; ask whether their “African tribal necklace” contains components from ethnic craftsmen or just reminded them of a runway safari print.

Language is a sloppy, fuzzy thing; we can only use it as accurately as common usage allows, but it is courteous, correct and wise to employ all the knowledge we can in describing our jewelry truly.

It’s not wrong to use terms like “tribal!”

It’s just important to use them in as clear and accurate a way as possible.

Author Chelsea Clarey of TangoPig Jewelry Creations is a jewelry designer who specializes in reusing vintage components in stylish new designs. She especially loves to turn dated brooch pins into gorgeous vintage pendants. Almost all of her work is one of a kind. Be sure to keep up with Chelsea on her TangoPig Jewelry Creations blog.

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