The luxury Tanzanian jewelry label preserves tradition and catalyzes change by empowering Maasai communities.
July 29, 2020
Intricately fashioned, breathtakingly beautiful and made entirely by hand, the celebrated beadwork of the East African Maasai people is an embodiment of the ethnic group’s culture and vast historical heritage. Every aspect—from the color and beading patterns, to the materials from which the beads used are made—has rich, symbolic meaning to the Tanzanian Maasai, who are widely known for their distinctive, traditional dress and age-old customs, including the famous “adumu” (“jumping dance”). Passed down from one generation of women to the next, their beading is deeply rooted in mysticism and ceremonial practices, but the encroachment on the Masaai's pastoral lands means they, along with their traditions, have long faced the threat of extinction.
Enter Sidai Designs, an accessories brand and social enterprise based out of the nation’s Arusha region. Derived from the Kimaasai word ‘sidai’, meaning ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, Sidai Designs works in collaboration with a number of Maasai women to create handmade, contemporary jewelry and accessories. Their mission is to preserve an age-old African beading tradition, work to create sustainable jobs and economic opportunities for Maasai women, and produce unique pieces that blend beading customs with a contemporary aesthetic.
Co-founded by Rebecca Olivia Moore, Sidai Designs was formed, in part, of her unique aspiration to work in design while supporting disadvantaged women. Though the British-born creative initially had ambitions to become a vet, a distaste for the sight of blood and lifelong inclination toward drawing and sketching led her to study Textile Design at Chelsea College of Art. She later began working in London but quickly decided it wasn’t for her, jumping instead at the opportunity to work with a ceramic start-up in Swaziland.
“I wanted an adventure at the time,” she tells us of the move, but what she ultimately gained was a passion for empowering creatives through the sharing of her knowledge and understanding of design. This, she says, is what determined her career path. Fast-forward ten years and Moore has worked in four different African countries, where she has developed innovative techniques, redirected artisanal brands, introduced luxury labels, and helped to build sustainable business models.
Under Moore’s direction, Sidai Designs has grown into a community of over 100 local Maasai artisans and beaders who work to create high-end, exclusive designs that appeal to an international market. Demonstrating a timeless approach to the art of accessory-making, the pieces of Sidai Designs’ collections are artful reinterpretations of classic styles: sculptural forms drip with delicate glass beading; necklaces thread together elegant gold plating and striking beaded bars; classic hoop earrings are adorned with zircon gems. Made to order and built by different hands each time, each piece is imbued with the unique expression of its maker. Beautiful in their imperfection, each creation has its own story to tell.
Moore explains how new designs are made in collaboration with the full-time beaders, describing the process in detail: “Ideas are presented to them in the form of a drawing and after considering it, they offer recommendations. If the piece is possible to create, they make their first sample and then it’s a collaboration between us to perfect the design. The team will often say how much they enjoy the challenge of sampling new designs, as they feel a huge sense of achievement when they finally have that light bulb moment of how it will work.”
Sidai Designs is also utterly uncompromising when it comes to the quality of materials used. “[Our materials] range from upcycled to luxurious,” Moore says. “Salvaged grain bags are used alongside 18-carat gold fill and fine sterling silver, and plastic containers are cut up and recycled for boning. Meanwhile, butter-soft suede and precious metal fastenings give our jewelry an elegant finish.”
“The black and white pattern of the piece, she says, speaks to a proverb that forms the foundation of what Sidai Designs does: ‘A Maasai without their culture is like a Zebra without stripes.’”
Photo: Maasai Woman. Courtesy of Sidai Designs
Photo: Beadwork. Courtesy of Sidai Designs
Photo: Maasai Beader. Courtesy of Sidai Designs
As for her favorite pieces, she is, unsurprisingly, unable to choose just one. She calls out the Chevron Warrior Cuff. Beaded sans loom, it is handspun using thread salvaged from recycled materials. The black and white pattern of the piece, she says, speaks to a proverb that forms the foundation of what Sidai Designs does: ‘A Maasai without their culture is like a Zebra without stripes.’ There’s also one of her more recent favourites: the silver Selina Earrings. Part of their first ever silver collection named Warrioress, Moore calls the range a celebration of the strength of the Maasai woman. Crafted by the first female Maasai silversmiths in their new metal workshop, the collection also includes glass beaded chokers, decorated chains and delicate bracelets.
“We hope that people who wear these pieces feel connected and empowered knowing they have empowered [a] woman with their purchase,” she says of the Sidai customer. “[We] offer our customers something that they can treasure and feel proud to wear. The wearer knows they have made an ethical choice and that their beautiful purchase has made a positive impact.”
Moore says she finds inspiration almost everywhere, particularly in her travels within the Tanzanian Maasai villages and markets, where she gets to see firsthand what the women are wearing daily. This is where she learns about the Maasai ceremonial attire and cultural artefacts; lessons that inspire the shapes, textures and patterns of her designs. An understanding of the craft, the construction of the pieces, and the meanings behind beading patterns, she says, are all key when working with indigenous communities.
Global style has long drawn inspiration from Africa, but a growing international appetite for luxury products that boast a distinctive narrative has led to international markets waking up to the continent’s design talent and its role in global luxury. For these reasons, bridging the gaps between cultures, empowering people through job creation and ensuring vast access to international markets is where Moore is directing her energy. “I now believe that design can no longer be simply beautiful,” she firmly asserts. “It must also be creative, connecting and empowering.”
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