It will be no exaggeration to say that in many West African cultures, coral plays a significant role and hold deep meaning. It is used as a physical medium in traditional designs to convey a powerful message of freedom of expression, power, dominance and hierarchy.
Although there is a spectrum of styles, shapes, and colours of corals widely available, there are, nevertheless, fundamental traits discernible in all of them, such as the naturalism and the stylisation, which makes each coral unique. The most valued coral is the reddest and the most branchy of them all.
The red, pink, orange and black corals are the most sought after coral colours used in various jewellery.
These colours are found in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Hawaii, near the Strait of Gibraltar. At Cape Verde Islands, which is located off the coast of West Africa, off the coast of Portugal, and then around Japan and Taiwan.
It is worth mentioning that the parts of coral used in jewellery making is not the living organism. Instead, it is the carbonate secretions, which forms the structure that the coral 'polyps' survives on. This is not the living part of the aquatic animals, but is needed for survival.
The harvested corals are then cut, polished into several cabochons, which are then shaped into beads or carved and used in many ornamentations.
Due to the world's coral reefs threatened by pollution, overharvesting and climate change, several coral species are endangered, with strict regulations imposed in 180 countries who have restricted the export of red corals harvested after 1969.
Although coral is still popularly used in jewellery making today, the use of corals in jewellery making is deemed controversial. Because of ethics and moral responsibilities, some jewellers have chosen to incorporate into their designs, refashioned vintage pieces. Some jewellers have excluded the use of corals in their collections altogether.
For this study, I will focus primarily on corals, used by the Edo people of Benin, who occupies the South/Mid-Western, Nigeria.
The 'Ivie Ebo' and 'Ekan' are corals synonymous with prestige and importance in the Edo culture. These two types of corals known to originate from a group of the coral family 'Phylum Coelenterata' otherwise known as 'Cnidaria.' These unique red corals appear to grow in a bush-like formation inside the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Japan, also known as East Sea. This type of red coral is so precious. It is because thought to have amulet powers for warding off dangers.
Also, the red coral is beautiful and powerful in most religions. They are known to protect against any magic spells.
Perhaps this is why the Edo nobles and chiefs consider the red coral 'Ivie-ebo' as the most precious and sought after coral than the Ekan, which resembles a greyish stone.
According to oral traditions, Oba Ewuare, in 1400s A.D believed that the rare coral known as the 'Ivie-ebo' was allegedly stolen from the 'goddess of the sea' at Ughoton (Gwatto), and brought into the Republic of Benin. Since Ughoton was seen as the gateway to Europe in those times. It was said that the Portuguese and the Spaniards may have brought them to the Republic of Benin through trade.
Because of this ancient history, for many centuries the Oba, of Benin, placed stricter sanctions on both the Ivie-edo and the Ekan corals, in Benin city. Members of the community and the Edo people are forbidden to wear these precious corals, especially if you don't hold a chieftaincy title.
Corals are used differently in Nigeria. The corals gotten and used by the Edo people are very different from those used by the Northern parts of Nigeria, Yoruba and the Eastern parts of Nigeria.
I'm amazed to learn, that if members of the chief's clan bring shame to the monarchy, or worse disagree and fall out with the Oba, who is the king, they are restricted and forbidden from wearing the rare coral beads.
I came across this well-documented story that tells the story of a traditional ruler named, Oba Akenzua II, who allegedly in the 1940s, confiscated a ceremonial beaded hear gear and coral beads that once belonged to Chief Okorotun, for his disloyalty to the Edo royal family. These confiscated regalia were handed over to his successor.
When the Oba decides to take this action, it means the chief has been eliminated from a place of power or prominence. The successor who receives the ceremonial gears is then made a traditional chief and a member of the royal clan by the king.
As you read the above statement, you can see why these corals hold great importance, to the aristocratic clan, and the chiefs, in the Republic of Benin.
Often the weight of corals used in the regalia speaks aloud the importance of dominance over comfort.
It is necessary to note that certain pieces of jewellery, regalias and dresses made from these rare beads, for the monarch and the key chiefs, are not always for public appearances; sometimes such items are specially reserved for special ceremonial meetings and festivals.
In Edo culture, it's known that when a king or oba sends a coral bead to a nobleman, it signifies that the oba is bestowing an honorary title of a chief on the individual. For their services to the monarch, and the community. If the individual refuses to accept a bead sent by the king, it is noted by the king as an unpardonable sin. This action immediately makes you the kings enemy.
The same is said when a king or prince presents and sends a coral bead to a single woman. This act symbolises a marriage proposal. When the lady accepts this gift, she is bound to comply with the offer.
The use of red corals is then synonymous with marriage. The Edo and Igbo-speaking parts of Nigeria on their traditional wedding day adorn themselves with red corals.
In summary, I write the above to briefly explain my inspiration for designing this beaded body piece that I called the 'Helge', meaning 'blessed'.
My intention for this design is to create a feel-good body piece that a queen can gift herself, to celebrate her beauty, sovereignty and worth.
Although in the past, suitors would have presented these beaded styles as gifts to woo the ladies that they are attracted to, in this instance, I have designed these body pieces from acrylic beads, not coral, due to ethics.
The concept still stands that a queen's body is a beautiful work of art worth honouring and adorning with respect and love.
Shop the Helge beaded body jewellery on the website.