his book, Passing through Africa, Alan Donovan, co-founder of
Nairobi’s African Heritage, the first Pan African gallery on the
African continent, and the creator of African Heritage jewellery, tells
about his time at Lake Turkana in the far northern reaches of Kenya.
Here, he created the simple necklaces of Turkana earrings that
became the genesis of African Heritage Jewellery.
this simple beginning in the 1970’s, sprang a small workshop making one of
a kind neck pieces. The
demand for this uniquely African jewellery lead to several larger
workshops employing hundreds of artisans who have produced over a
million designs for a global market.
recalls: “The old Turkana blacksmith also hammered the brass or copper
earrings called “Aparaparat,” of which Turkana women wear as many as
seven on each ear, and the “Atepis,” their Egyptian-looking, coiled
wire lip plug accented with a red bead.
day I bought all the hammered brass earrings that the blacksmith had
created from a roll of brass wire.
It was then that I started to make simple necklaces by stringing
these earrings with Turkana glass beads.
These were actually trade beads from Czechoslovakia.
From this beginning I eventually established a jewellery workshop
using Turkana "Aparaparat" and Maasai “Surutia” (the coiled brass
earrings worn by Maasai married women or young Maasai boys before
workshop I called “Nala,” which is my name, Alan, spelt backwards
although many people think it is a Swahili word.
that time, I had no particular aim as to what to do with these items
other than to give them to my friends and hang them on my wall. I had already put together several simple necklaces from the
beautiful elements I had bought in the West African bead markets".
experience in Turkana changed my life completely and forever.”
in his book he describes working with another jewellery designer in
Kenya: “I wanted to learn more about making jewellery, so I moved down
to Mombasa for a few weeks to study jewellery making at the Bombolulu
Workshop. Bombolulu had
been set up by an American Peace Corps volunteer named Holland Millis.
The workshop was organised by the Government as a rehabilitation
project for people who has been severely injured or traumatized in
only requirement to join the workshop was that a person must have at
least one limb. There were
blind people, some people missing legs, others missing an arm and a leg,
many of them with emotional problems connected with re-entering society.
assigned a task to each one of them.
The person with one leg used it to twine leaver from banana
trees, fashioning the leaves into cords and ropes for necklaces or
bracelets. The blind man
cut copper pipes into exact lengths required for beads by feeling the
lengths on templates given to him.
Another blind man filed and hammered the rough ends while a
sighted person hammered and filed finished touches, producing beads from
the copper of nearby Zaire, home of enormous copper deposits... Holland
insisted on using only local materials in the designs for the workshop,
seed pods, coconut shell, nuts and banana fibre, all of which could be
collected near the workshop. His
designs were superb, and nearly 25 years later they are still being
two weeks I had designed and assembled a collection of over three dozen
necklaces.” Holland had
also done some special designs from the West African components I had given to him. I
thought the results were spectacular.
“Errol Trebinsky came by to see us one day. She was an author, doing research into the life of Dennis
Fitch Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover, immortalized in the film Out of
Africa, and her book was used as a primary reference work for the
was completely enamored with the necklaces I was making from pieces
from all over Africa: gold and cast brass from Ghana, silver from
Ethiopia, polished oxen horn from Madagascar, beads chipped from the
thick shell of the coconut or seed pods in Nigeria or from ostrich egg
shell by the Turkana in Kenya, sea-shells, amber from Mali and Morocco, hand carved
polished malachite from Zaire and Zambia, false coral and
hand-made glass beads from Ghana, faience and scarabs from Egypt, jasper
and agates reserved fro the King and his most exalted subjects in old
Benin. These so weighted
down the King that he could not walk without attendants to support him
when in his royal regalia.”
tails, crocodile teeth, warthog tusks, even hippo teeth and beetle
wings, were used in those first designs before I stopped using animal
parts, other than cow horn and cow bone.”
tells of his first exhibition of African Heritage Jewellery in Nairobi:
“I was nervously arranging each necklace on its
own board in the windows and in the arches of the small back-room
gallery. It was about 4
o’clock in the afternoon and I was still painting boards to accentuate
the colours of each necklace or displaying them on African textiles, and
installing more spot lights to illuminate each one.
was in the back room on my hands and knees, when a man stepped over the
cord I had put across the entry and started looking at the displays. He
removed one of the boards, and then
another. I walked over to
him and said, ‘This is an exhibition and it opens
at 6.30pm. If you
want to reserve anything I can
put a sticker on it, but please do not remove the things from the
looked at me and through his spectacles and replied in a thick Texan
accent, But I want it all.’
said, 'well, tell me which ones you would like' He replied, 'I
want all of them. I want
the boards they are on. I
want the whole wall. I want
all the necklaces and the wall they are on.'
not for you.’ “Well then, who are they for?’
“Did you ever see anything like this?’ he exclaimed, pointing at one of the necklaces on its board, still lying on the floor."
wife knelt down beside him, ‘Well, to tell you the truth I guess I
stuff is great. It’s
wonderful!’ he said aside to me.
‘Do you have any more at home?’
night I posted a sign on the exhibit: ‘All Sold’. "
exhibit of jewellery traveled to Texas and over the next few months it
was shown at Neiman Marcus Galleries, the Jane C. Lee Gallery with an
exhibition of gouaches by Hans Hofmann and prints by Larry Scholder,
then to Bergdorf
Goodman’s in New York City.
Donovan’s first tour of the USA with a jewellery collection back in
1971, with John Browse, who became the manager of the Folk and Craft
Museum in Los Angeles, a whole city block in New York city was roped off
by the mayor’s office.
initial tour of the USA included a huge exhibit at Jesse Jackson’s
“Operation Breadbasket” in Chicago’s cavernous international
amphitheatre for the Third Annual “Black Expo.”
the jewellery was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural
History, The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Harcus Krakow
Rosen and Sonnabend Galleries in Boston, UCSD at Lajolla California, The
Sculpture to Wear Gallery at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, The
Museum of Natural History
in New York, Bloomingdales department store in New York, The Field
Museum in Chicago, The Folk and Craft Museum in Los Angeles, and many
other venues in America.
did not return to America for another three years, when he found that
things had changed and there were a multitude of designers using African
was reflected in the prices he found for beads in West Africa.
A necklace of Mali amber had gone from $3.00 to over $100.00 (now
worth well over $ 400.00) and trade beads had gone from $5.00 a strand
to $30.00 a strand in just a few short years.
the first decade, his jewellery workshops produced mostly one of a kind
necklaces, but as time went by and sources of supplies were networked,
the workshops started repeating limited numbers of several designs and
manufacturing components. The
"Jungle Safari" workshop was set up 1979 when Alan was asked to produce
his largest showing up to that time at a special event to celebrate the
opening of new gift shops at the San Diego Zoo:
thousand guests, mostly lifetime members of the Zoo, were invited for
two nights and several thousand showed up.
The zoo had employed 16 professionals models to present the
African Heritage Collection. A
bridge was specially constructed over a lagoon filled with flamingos,
surrounded by candlelit
tables set on tiers. Baseball
stadium lights were brought in for the occasion.
Two bands, one the Koumpo National Drum Ensemble from Ghana, set
a stately rhythm as gorgeous models stepped out of a jungle and danced,
marched and strutted onto the bridge bathed in amber, lavender and white
Donovan says his biggest mistake was when he attempted to mass produce ethnic jewellery from Kenya for a huge chain of stores in America and that he will never attempt to do such a large order again.
still produces five lines of jewellery.
Besides the original African Heritage Jewellery created from
elements from across the African continent, and the Jungle Safari and
Nala lines, there is ‘Endangered Art’, a workshop using mostly
silver and gold elements with semi precious and precious stones and
‘Malaika’ created mostly from brass sheets and local material, a
workshop started for poor people in one of the large slums of Nairobi.
his workshops are much smaller than they were at their peak and exports
have dropped considerably, he still supplies the gift shop of the Museum
of African Art in Washington, DC through African Heritage, Nairobi.
of the craftspeople who started producing jewellery or components in the
African Heritage Jewellery Workshop now produce their own designs for
export to Europe, Japan and America.
Donovan’s last tour of Europe was to nine cities in 1995 which he says will be his last. His last “Africa Heritage Night” was presented by the United Nations (Habitat) in Nairobi as part of the world-wide celebrations of the United Nations 50th Anniversary.
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