African trade beads have a long and sometimes ugly history. They were used by Africans for adornment and as currency. The ugly part comes with the use of "slave beads" as ships going to Africa were loaded with beads and other trade goods as ballast before exchanging these for human cargo on the outbound journeys. Beads also played a fascinating and crucial role in the 19th century European exploration of Africa - see my historical biography on Richard Francis Burton and African Trade Beads (recommended read).
|Mali wedding beads popular with the Fulani women of Mali for over 100 years|
We also owe a debt to the wonderfully creative artisans from that continent for many inspirations and original beading stitches such as the Ndebele (herringbone) stitch. Perhaps less known are the glass artisans who make glass beads using techniques which date back centuries.
The Bead Chest specializes in antique and vintage African trade beads as well as modern handmade ones, primarily from recycled glass. They work with developing communities throughout Africa to bring to the international market beautiful fair trade bead treasures. These are all sourced directly through year round travel to many African villages. According to the manager, Adisa Kunte, they currently carry over 1,000 different types of beads, pendants and jewelry supplies from their African sources.
|Early 1900's Czech made beads from Niger|
The blue Sudanese Hebron Kano beads from the 1800's were made from the salts of the Dead Sea. They are another example of uneven bead sizes as each bead was shaped using a planed wooden stick. The color variation is also evident because of the manual dying process. Iron and copper oxides from natural sources were used. Hebron Kano beads are most often yellow. The blue one below is rarer hence it's hefty price.
|Blue Hebron Kano Beads|
The loveliest collection in Bead Chest and one of the most affordable are the Krobo beads. The people of Krobo Mountain in Ghana, West Africa, cleverly reproduced old Venetian trade bead styles. They would crush recycled glass into powder, pour into molds and then heated to created drum shaped beads. They then decorated them using a paste made from colored glass powder and water and a thin wooden stalk. Firing a second time fixes the color. The Bead Chest's blog post on how recycled glass beads were made has more details.
The African bone beads come from Ghana. The bone beads are dyed using the same wax relief process as batik cloth.
|African Batik Bone Beads from Ghana|
Not all African trade beads were made in Africa. The colorful Mali Wedding beads shown at the top as well as the green vaseline and red snake beads were originally made in Bohemia/Czechoslovakia in the early 1900's and ended up in different parts of Africa.
|Vaseline Beads from Ethiopia|
|Old White Padre Beads from Ethiopia|
Before You Go:
- African Beadwork : Romance of Zulu Beads
- Richard Francis Burton and African Trade Beads
- Fair Trade Jewelry : The Bombulu Workshop
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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