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Bangle Bracelets

Nowadays, bangle bracelets adorn millions of wrists from Europe to the United States. But before it came into popular fashion to wear a score of bands up the forearm, bangles were a symbol of status in West Indian and West African cultures.  Once known under a myriad of names — manillas, okpoho, okombo, or abi — ­­ bangles could identify how wealthy a woman’s husband was.  For West Indian families, more gold in the piece indicated a higher status for the wearer.  Those who could not afford gold made bangles of copper or silver.  In West Africa, however, where the style seems to have originated, the most prestigious material to use was copper, known in Africa as the ‘red gold’.  The sound they made when clanking together also added to its value.  Later, when Portuguese merchants realized the jewelry’s significance in West African culture, bangles began to act as a form of currency.  Unfortunately, it became the primary method of payment for people sold to the Americas beginning in the 16th century.

The original form for manillas was a horseshoe-­shaped bracelet, what we often call a ‘cuff’, with a thin body tipped on either end by a rounded knob.  Now the style is as diverse as the people who wear them, from diamond-­studded to knitted to lanyard-spun. Sometimes they are family heirlooms, like the passed ­down manillas of the Caribbean, and sometimes they are ‘friendship bracelets’ passed between adolescents.  It’s clear these artifacts come in all varieties for people of all backgrounds and ages — a ‘cuff’ that links different cultures together.

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