The role of gold and jewels doesn’t vary too much from the past. Today, gold, medallions, chains, and other jewelry are used to represent significance and personal worth. In hip-hop land, rappers especially evoke chain competition and the bling ownership to one up the other and compete in a who’s who type of competition.
According to Dr. Alma Gottlieb, professor of Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in certain African societies, gold plays a critical role in defining prestige. “It is very common among centralized societies for holders of political power to dress in a way that’s meant to symbolize outwardly the kind of power that you employ spiritually and politically.”
Although resources were plentiful, gold wasn’t available enough to be worn by all members of society. Obviously, the capacities to express wealth have evolved although the desire to display it have not. “There is some historical precedence for the contemporary passion for bling among African-Americans – the big difference is that in the traditional African context, it was largely restricted to the powerful elite,” she said. “Because of the technology of the industrial revolution, we can now make inexpensive copies of these items. It becomes potentially an avenue of appearing to engage in upward mobility through fashion, even if you’re not moving up in the class hierarchy, you can look the part.”
There are inexpensive copies and then there is the Black-born “Ghetto gold,” which urbandictionary.com defines as a “classification for tacky, fake-gold jewelry worn by many inner-city individuals.”
The style of oversized and attention-grabbing earrings, rings and necklaces have moved beyond the kiosks of swap meets and inner city neighborhoods and have been embraced by the mainstream in recent years- even the fictionary fashionista Carrie Bradshaw made a mention of her fabulous ghetto gold in an episode of “Sex and The City.”
The popular notion has always been that the desire for material items is fueled by one’s need to keep up with the Jones’. Evidently, it is much more complicated than that, involving the dynamics of human nature and cultural evolution. “This taking care of personal and spiritual business by being “clean”—to use the argot– is a shield and it will go on forever,” said Ferris. “For as you know, God created black people and black people created style.”