Enigma 243: bone and shell bib necklace

Twenty years or so ago, Jim brought this necklace home, from one of the Rochester shops on his rounds, probably from a dealer who got her merchandise from regional estate sales. It is an elaborate, multi-strand bib-style construction, with a long counterbalancing back piece.


We sort of assumed it was African, but didn’t fit into any of the categories that my books described. On closer examination, I saw that the vertical connector beads were actually small bones. Hmmm.

243 detail
243 detail

I posted the mystery on the Ethnic Jewels community at Facebook. As of today, here’s what I can say about “243” (its ID# in my database).

The amber-like beads are probably Bakelite (phenolic resin), which was patented in 1909. The imitation amber became hugely popular in the African trade by mid-century (article).

The disks, it turns out, are made from the ostrich eggshell, which is the oldest bead material on earth. I had no idea. The beads are still being handmade by the San Bushmen women of the Kalahari desert in east Africa. (article)

Finally, what about the little bones? I wound up scrolling through a website that sells bones to hobbyists. Did you know you can buy bags of cat bones? They aren’t much larger than the ones in my necklace. And metatarsals (foot bones) for a variety of mammals are also available. This kind of info expands the possibilies. I prefer to eliminate possibilities.

This morning, I paged through the iconic photography book Africa Adorned. There on page 42 was a small photo of similar bones made into adornment: “A belt worn by Samburu and Turkana women, made from the toe bones of a small antelope strung with glass beads.” Samburu and Turkana tribes live in east Africa. So now it’s getting more plausible as an east African artifact.

We can say more about the parts, but still nothing about the whole. Is it a cultural artifact or a designer necklace using traditional materials?

The search goes on…

Wine poured.

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