Tribal Influences By Lucia van der Post

Lucia van der Post tells us how the best-looking ethnic jewellery pieces today are made by the very people who inspired them….

Tribal Influences

Every fashionista, and indeed any woman who is interested in clothes, knows that at least as important as the dress you wear is the jewellery you put with it.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be real – in fact, quite often real would be impossibly vulgar for size is what jewellery has been all about in recent times. So important in fact has the right piece of jewellery become that many of the fashion houses – Louis Vuitton, Marni, Roberto Cavalli, Prada, Armani, Jaeger, to name just a few – have started designing their own, sending their models down the catwalk with what we might call a “dress specific” piece that is essential to the overall look.

Great big metal necklaces, colourful chunks of crystal and metal, exotic combinations of beads and metal, rich combinations of wood and stones, have all been seen strutting their stuff on the runways. Quite often beading and metal pieces have been incorporated into the actual clothes themselves (Balmain, Lanvin, Dior), and the trend has already filtered down to the ready-to-wear lines — Marks & Spencer, Topshop and Hoss Intropia have all started incorporating decorative bits into the garments. So jewellery matters. It’s more important than a new dress – the right piece can make an old dress seem like new.

Pile on the necklaces, add a huge cuff or two and the look is updated in a trice.

The influence behind all of this is ethnic, tribal jewellery. Think of Masai women and their vast beaded necklaces, their slim arms piled with multitudinous bracelets and bangles. Think of the women of Rajasthan, or the hill tribes of Thailand – colourful and gorgeous. These are pieces that can transform a smart, but anonymous dress into something very, very now. Some of the jewellery has not just been inspired by remote tribes, it’s actually been made with their participation.

Jeweller Pippa Small, darling of the fashionista set, started life as an anthropologist. She often works with indigenous peoples such as the San Bushmen, the Batwa pygmies of Rwanda and the Kuna in Panama. She enlists their traditional skills to create unique pieces. Visit her at her shop in London or her website ( and you’ll see her own wonderful designs, most of it homing in on rough stones set in fine but irregularly shaped pieces of gold. There are also links on the site to the many projects that she is helping to guide.

Another company, Made, is a fair trade jeweller that sells designs made by a host of tribes in East Africa. It supplies such chic outlets as Nicole Fahri and Whistles boutiques. Whilst their raison-d’etre is to give the communities an income and dignity, it doesn’t work unless the jewellery is fabulous. Made’s collaboration with Pippa Small on a recycled brass disc necklace for Nicole Farhi was featured in one of the weekend newspaper supplements and quickly sold out. Check out the products and you’ll see that much of it is as desirable as anything to be found on the high street. See more at