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The Story of Taureg Jewelry Designer Moutta Abalanchad from Niger

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By: Alba Brunetti / Istanbul, Turkey
Translated By: Laura Angela Bagnetto

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a Tuareg jewelry maker from Niger. Moutta Abalanchad lives in a small village, but several times a year he travels to Europe to sell his unique, handcrafted pieces. The rings, bracelets and necklaces are traditional, but feel very modern at the same time. Becoming a jewelry designer and artist was a product of changing times for the Taureg and what Moutta brings forward to us are small beautiful pieces of history.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Moutta Abalanchad. I come from Agadez, in the town of Dabaga, and I live in Balambouk. I have a family, a big family, with nine children and two wives. I have brothers and sisters too, and cousins, and nephews. They are all in Balambouk. I have family in another place, Natal. It's 40 km from Balambouk. I have more family members in Eganderil, which is 50 km from Balambouk and in Dabaga.

Why did you decide to make jewelry?

We, the Tuareg, used to be nomads. A life in the desert, with animals. We made camel saddles. We sold them to Tuaregs we didn't know. And we did business with other Tuaregs with goats, camels and sheep. In 1984, there was a huge drought that killed nearly all the animals. And now, we don't have animals, we are sedentary, and when we started to live in the towns, we carved talc rocks in the beginning, and sold them to tourists who came during this time. Others made jewelry in Agadez. We also made jewelry, but only to sell to other Tuaregs. And there were Tuaregs who made jewelry for tourists and sold them in France, and we decided to copy them. We started making and selling jewelry. We met friends who invited us to Europe to sell jewelry. And now, there are not a lot of tourists who come to us [in Agadez], so now we have to come here [Europe] to sell. We are able to provide for our family doing this, so that is why we decided to sell jewelry.

*story continues after slideshow*

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What is your inspiration?

We copy old jewelry that our ancestors made. Yes, there are people with old jewelry we can see, and there are others who order designs that we do not know about.

Tuareg men wear jewelry, but you don't. Why?

Men back home don't wear a lot of jewelry; they wear only rings and bracelets. I am not really a jewelry person. I sell them, but I don't wear them. I prefer to be free that way.

What do you use to make jewelry?

Good question. We use hammers, files, sandpaper, and a sharp point to make the designs, and we also use tweezers. Everything is made by hand.

What is the jewelry made of?

It is made from sterling silver, silver that is pure and has nothing added. We also use Tuareg silver, which is made up of old pieces that are melted, so sometimes there is a mixture of materials -- brass, maybe bronze. There could be a lot of metals mixed in.

We work with [semi-precious] stones, and with wood. We buy this. We buy ebony from Mali. And we buy agate stones from Saudi Arabia. We use a lot of stones. We mix it with the silver when we work.

Can you tell us about your Cooperative?

It's a family cooperative. We buy silver, we buy stones and we work for our families. There are about 50 people are in the co-op.

You sell the jewelry by yourself?

No, it depends, there are friends who come and sells them also, there are those who have artist workshops at their house, and others who work at the artisanal village in Agadez, and those who work in Niamey. Everyone is from the same family, but there a lot of different cooperatives. So if there is no work in one cooperative, you can farm out the work to another cooperative.

How much time does it take to make a necklace, for instance?

A necklace had a lot of work put into it. You must melt the silver, then hammer it, then cut it, then put the stones with it, solder it, clean it, and make little designs. For a necklace, it takes three days to make this. It depends on the work, it is not the same. It could be three days; it could be four days, to do everything.

One person does everything, or a number of people do one thing?

Everyone does their thing. When I am home, when the necklace is done, I put the stones in it. Everyone has their job. There is a team that polishes the necklaces. All the children do this.

Does the jewelry have a history?

The jewelry has a history, but it is the ancestors who know what the symbols mean. Me, I am not able to tell you. But maybe you can look on the internet and get some of the history. I do not know this by heart. These are the explanations that I do not have in my head. I did not study this. There are people who know in Agadez. We started making jewelry in '87, no, '90, '93, '94 when we started making jewelry. The people who have been making jewelry for more than 60 years know this history. We, during nomadic times, we made camel saddles. Our group, the people who work at the forge, made camel saddles.

You don't make camel saddles any more. Were you happy doing this?

We were very, very happy to do this, when we had camels. Now, there are no clients who buy camel saddles. Why? Because that was when we were nomads. Now we are no longer nomads, so making saddles, for camels, is finished.

Do you ever think of your old life, when you were a nomad?

Things must have changed a lot. It changed a lot. There is a very big difference. When we were nomads, we were very happy, we ate well, with camel milk, camel meat, a sheep or a goat to eat always, each week. We ate well. But now, there is not a lot of meat. Almost no more milk. You have to buy it; you have to have money always. We used to eat meat and drink milk; that doesn't exist any more. You always have to have money. If you don't have money, you are screwed. Before, we lived without money. We lived with our animals. And we worked with each other. That doesn't exist any more. You have to always have money in your pocket. Otherwise, you will fall apart. There is a very big difference now. Life is expensive now. But before, it wasn't that way.

This story would not have been possible without the help of Paris-based journalist and my lovely friend, Laura Angela Bagnetto, who also translated and took the photos for this piece. Thank you, LA!