For generations the Koumamas, a family of nomadic Tuareg silversmiths, traveled the Sahara selling their fine silver goods. In the 1970s, however, droughts caused the family to settle in Agadez, Niger, where master jeweler Elhadji Khoumama was born. A 25th generation silversmith, Elhadji continues the family’s long artistic tradition with his elegant, highly refined range of silver adornments.
Elhadji is a consummate artist with an eye for design and detail. During travels to America, for example, he studied trends and fashions of stateside consumers, then returned home after each trip inspired by what he saw. Elhadji brought new ideas to his extended network of silversmiths who work under the name Koumama Family Collective.
Through this process the work has gradually evolved. Older, more traditional Tuareg jewelry was angular, often incorporating triangles representing a good eye that would ward off the influences of the round-shaped evil eye. Curves are now common, supplanting some of the strong angularity of protective triangles. The engraving of the jewelry has become far more detailed. Elhadji uses ninety-nine percent pure fine silver instead of sterling because he believes the impurities in sterling are bad for a person’s health. Fine silver has another advantage as well. It is softer than sterling and makes it possible for the artisans to engrave increasingly complex designs with simple hand tools. Ebony and semi-precious stones are used more often, adding color to the bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
The success of the jewelry in the United States has yielded spectacular results in Niger. The Koumama Family Collective now has forty silversmiths in Agadez and Niamey plus apprentices, polishers, sanders and beaders, and around 200 people are involved in production.