In traditional jewelry, silver was most commonly used, and in modern Egyptian jewelry gold is used most often. However, other metals also play a role in the production of wearable heritage. Some metals have been used for centuries, while others are relatively new. These ‘new’ metals were originally brought from Europe by, for example, military staff during the colonization of Africa. It was in this manner that aluminum was first introduced. Soldiers carried with them cooking utensils and equipment made of aluminium, drove vehicles and flew aircrafts made of this metal. Within a short period of time this aluminium was melted down to be reused in African jewelry. When some European countries, such as France and Italy, started producing aluminum coins in the first half of the twentieth century, this metal became even more readily available as a material for jewelry. This is reason enough to dedicate a chapter to this special and relatively new metal in the WANA region.
The qualities of aluminium as a metal were discovered only by the end of the nineteenth century, quite late in history. This has to do with the fact that aluminium is difficult to find as a raw material, and it is mainly mined as a by-product of bauxite. Initially, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was used as an alloy with iron. Soon afterwards it was also processed by itself, after the specific qualities of the metal were recognized. The Dane Hans Christian Ølsted used it for the first time in 1825, although it would take until after 1886, before the new metal was produced more frequently. Finally, after 1930, it was used for utensils and coins, thus making the material widely available to the African market and its jewelers. It is because of this specific timeframe that Egyptian objects made of aluminium can be dated relatively easily. Aluminium has many advantages over other metals; it is soft, flexible, and free of corrosion. But even more importantly, it is easy to forge into any given shape with a melting point of only 660 degrees Celsius. When you compare that to the melting point of other metals used in the production of jewelry (silver for example with a melting point of 961 degrees Celsius), it becomes clear why aluminium was used almost immediately after its introduction into Africa and why it has played such an important role in the production of Bedouin jewelry ever since.
Apart from these qualities, aluminium is a very light metal, making it easy to carry and wear when larger jewelry items are produced. Although more white, it is very similar in appearance to silver, but far less expensive. For this reason it is called “the silver of the poor” Because aluminium has been used for a long time in European coins of relatively small monetary value, it has been easy and cheap to come by. These coins were, apart from their metal source, also appreciated for the imagery on them. For this reason, particularly in Morocco, coins were perforated and worn as amulets. In Africa at large, soon after their appearance on the market, aluminium coins were melted down on a massive scale. One of the properties that makes aluminium extremely suitable for the production of jewelry is how recyclable it is; it can be reused again and again without the metal losing its specific qualities. Broken objects left behind as waste in the desert could be picked up and reused. In a world where jewelry is often made anew for each new owner, a metal that can be infinitely recycled was obviously very welcome.
Aluminium jewelry and artifacts are found throughout North Africa, and from South Sudan to Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania the metal has even become the main component of jewelry. Incidentally, the material is also suitable for repairing a variety of objects. In the south of Egypt, where the Beja nomads live, you will find aluminium strips holding together two parts of a broken neck support. Or aluminium is used to repair a crack in a gourd. In Egypt, mainly bracelets and rings are made of aluminum, but amulets and coins can also be created with it. Since aluminium is easy to process, it can be forged by nomadic people under relatively simple conditions and with very elementary techniques. One of the methods used to make aluminium jewelry is the lost-wax technique. This method was already quite widespread in antiquity. In this technique the mold can only be used once because, after cooling, the mold is destroyed in order to release the metal object within. Aluminium objects can also be produced in other ways. They can, for instance, be formed in sand molds. In this technique the desired shape is made in hard sand and liquid metal is poured into it.
In the early 1990s, while I was living for a few months each year in the Eastern Desert of Egypt with the Ababda nomads, I exchanged a pair of binoculars for an aluminium water container (abriq in Arabic). The water container was made by the seller himself. The technique by which this object was made was different from the techniques previously mentioned. In this case, the plated metal was hammered into its shape using a mold. The seams of the object were bent closed by hammering as well. Parts of the object were melted together to make it waterproof. Aluminium nails held the various parts of the container together and the top was beautifully finished with a casted spout. Additionally, I got a cast aluminum coffee pot for free, apparently because I was interested in the metal. The coffee pot, as well as the water container, would normally be made from earthenware or steatite, but aluminium is a fine alternative. The owner told me that it lasts much longer and is, of course, lighter and easier to carry around.
This article was published in a more extended version as a chapter of my book: Egypt's Wearable Heritage. For more information on this publication, please visit the publisher's website or leave me a note.