Algeria: Kabylie Jewellery

Mediterranean and Coastal Stories:
Algeria - Kabylie Jewellery

Kabylie Jewellery: Aith Yeni – Benni Yeni

The artisan jewellery of the Kabylie region of Northern Algeria originates from the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain with the Reconquista of 1492. After this date the Jews in particular who left for North African were often engaged in forging metals and silver which as activities were often looked down upon by the local Muslim communities.

It was during this period that Muslims and Jews took their skills into the Kabylie community continuing a tradition that lasts to this present day. Berbers is the name given by the European colonisers to the indigenous peoples of North Africa who were living in the region before the Roman, Arab and Ottoman invasions. The people of this regions and all berbers refer to themselves as Amazigh which roughly translates as free men. Amazigh regions exist in Morocco Algeria and Tunisia and the Kabylie region of Algeria is the largest community whose language is now considered an official language of Algeria alongside Arabic and to a certain extent French.

Hence the jewellery of the mountainous region of Northern Algeria which is an extension of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco running from West to East is the Djurjura range. In this region which is described as Kabylie the jewellery production is located in the village of Aith Yeni ( Amazigh) / Benni Yeni ( Arabic).

After the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews one family came from the village of Ighil Ali Ath Abbas in the valley of Soumman in what is known as La Grande Kabylie to the village of Aith Yenni in Petit Kabylie transferring their skills to this region.

We can divide the jewellery into distinctive types which are still worn today by Amazigh women for marriage feasts and social outings, bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings and ankle bracelets.

The primary materials for this jewellery are imported silver, enamel from Limoges in France and dark red coral from the costal region of El Kala not far from the actual border with Tunisia. Even today Italians come to take some coral from this coastal region.

The silver is usually bought from the ‘Comptoir des Métaux’ in Algiers but as it’s difficult to purchase enough so artisan jewellers often have to resort to the black-market purchase- each piece should then have an official stamp of authenticity.

Blue, green and yellow are the three primary colours used in this jewellery, blue for the sky green for the land and yellow which can represent anger hence the use is not overstated.

These jewels are heavy, but the harshness of their archaism disappears when one notices the technical mastery underlined by the geometrical compositions of the decorations. Gold was never worked on in Kabylie it is said that gold reminder the women of copper, but a more likely explanation is that silver was more affordable.

Helen Sheehan