Zulu Bead-Mail

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South African craft is characterised by an abundance of beaded products.  One of the most charming is the Zulu Love Letter, which according to legend developed when Zulu men began working in the mines. As they were illiterate, communication from sweethearts back in home took for the form of ornament, where particular coloured beads signified different emotions.

The meanings of the colours depend as much on their combination as individual symbolism. This is a rough glossary:

COLOUR MEANING
Black Marriage/separation
Blue Trust/hatred
Yellow Luck/misadventure
Green Happiness/sorrow
Pink Powerful/lowly
Red Love/heartache
White Purity

The status of a Zulu woman is readily identified through her ornament – her marriage status, the status of her sisters and her home region.

According to the grammar of ornament, the triangle represents father, mother and child. The meaning of the triangle changes with orientation.

ORIENTATION STATUS
Inverted, apex downward Unmarried man
Apex downward Unmarried woman
Two joined as diamond Married woman
Joined with apexes meeting Married man

For a woman to express her love for a man, she would place a white triangle with apex down enclosing a red triangle with apex up.

Today, Zulu love letters can be obtained in tourist shops as a cheap gift. But in the context of contemporary jewellery, it does suggest particular possibilities of ornament as a communication device. While different coloured ribbons represent alternative good causes, the possibility of colour combinations has yet to be realised.

It could be objected that the meaning of any such system depends on its widespread use – something that jewellery today cannot attain. However, ornament is often the prompt for the dialogue between individuals. Translation of meaning is at least one kind of enunciation.

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Really? You don’t say.

For more information, see Beadwork in the ZULU cultural tradition.

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