Created by fashion designer Oumou Sy with local goldsmiths at her workshop in Dakar, Senegal, this jewelry ensemble not only invokes the long and rich tradition of intricate goldsmithing in the area but also speaks to the Senegalese aesthetic of sañse made popular by the 18th and 19th century figure of the signaré. Signaré itself is not a Senegalese word, but rather a hybrid French and Portuguese word used to describe the powerful, fashionable, and often Afro-European women who would temporarily marry the European men that came to Senegal to extract its resources. 1

Throughout the 18th and 19th century, Senegal, like many other African countries at the time, was caught in a one-sided relationship with Europe where many European colonial forces had entered the continent in order to extract resources from it such as gold and slaves.2 Signarés rose as these forces gained more power on the continent and extracted more resources since marriages between the European men working to extract these resources and signarés were beneficial for both parties. By marrying a signaré, the European trader not only gained a wife to care for them while they lived in a foreign country, but also gained a local contact that could help them gain access to interior trade routes of gold and slaves.3 However, these marriages were always temporary and would end with the man returning permanently to Europe, where they often would have their first wives and even other children waiting for them.4 Upon leaving, the man would leave all property and income he accrued while in Senegal to his wife along with any children they might have had together and she was free to marry again.5

Thus, the figure of the signaré is an ambiguous one. On the one hand, these women acted as temporary wives and caretakers to European men who were going to Senegal to exploit it and extract resources from it. On the other hand, these women were able to accrue wealth and keep it in Senegal, passing it down to any children they had with their temporary husbands and running businesses that profited the local economy. This nuance is recognized in Senegal today, where they are seen as celebrated figures of expert negotiation that bridged and balanced different cultures and modes of being and are celebrated through the aesthetic of sañse, a style of dressing that emphasizes presenting a fabulous public persona of looking and feeling good that many signarés engaged in. 6
A Wolof term and concept derived from the French changer, to change or transform, sañse encompasses everything about a woman’s presentation of herself including the clothes she wears, the shoes she has on, and the accessories she chooses to add.7 Signarés in particular were able to engage in sañse due to their wealth and access to gold. With the property and income left to them by their temporary husbands, signarés could afford to upgrade any part of their outfit to be more fashionable or luxurious and their access to gold trade routes would allow them to obtain enough gold to create spectacular gold jewelry that others would not have. As a result, signarés could more easily afford to transform their public persona to one that was fashionable and fabulous. In doing so, they were not only presenting themselves as fashionable, wealthy, and powerful but were also transforming themselves from regular members of their community to leaders that had to negotiate and represent their communities against encroaching European forces.

Dorothy Hudson is a second-year BGC MA student.
[1] Allison Keyes, “In Senegal, Female Empowerment, Prestige and Wealth Is Measured in Glittering Gold,” (Smithsonian Institution, November 5, 2018),….
[2] “Colonization of Western Africa,” Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed September 15, 2023,
[3] Keyes, “In Senegal.”
[4] Keyes, “In Senegal.”
[5] Keyes, “In Senegal.”
[6] Nurith Aizenman, “Senegal’s Stunning Gold Jewelry … and the Controversial Women Who Wore It,” NPR (NPR, February 2, 2019),….
[7] “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women”,” National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution, accessed November 29, 2022,