Each African Bead carries its own story; a rich history and story behind it. Many will have had numerous owners, and seen multiple continents by the time they arrive to you. African beads and jewelry have played an enormous role in the culture, fashion, economy, and artistic expression of the African people. Today, they are cherished by collectors, jewelry makers, and everyday people who just love wearing African beads!
The Basics of African Beads
The term African Beads is used to refer to both beads locally produced by indigenous people of the African continent as well as Trade Beads that have traveled from other parts of the world and now circulate or were recently sourced from Africa. Together these beads have played an enormous role in the culture, fashion, economy, and artistic expression of the African people. Today, they are cherished by collectors, jewelry makers, and everyday people who just love wearing African beads! African tribal beads and glass beads also hold a special mythical significance as well.
Beads and Beadmaking have a long history in Africa. Beads have been made by indigenous Africans for thousands of years. In ancient times Egyptians, Greeks, and Indians established trading bases in East Africa and eventually the Arabs invaded in the eighth century and established trade routes with the wealthy kingdom of Ghana in modern day Mauritania. The Arabs brought glass beads to the Niger Delta to trade for gold and slaves. European explorers and traders began to arrive in the 15th century and this was followed by a tremendous influx of beads during the colonial period. At the peak of trade it is estimated that beads accounted for 40% of total imports or 2.5lbs glass beads /year for every man, women and child. Today the tradition of beads continues to be ingrained in African culture and old trade beads are still used for internal commerce.
The modern production of beads is in some sense a family tradition where tools and techniques are passed from one generation to the next. Beadmaking is a labor-intensive process and since many beads are hand made, this leads to variability in the appearance of individual beads even within a single strand. Production of beads is distributed throughout many countries on the African continent however the Hausa people of West Africa are particularly known for dominating the bead trade where they travel extensively to locate beads in villages, modify many beads, and sell them to local and foreign merchants.
African Beads are made from a diverse array of materials. Some of the oldest beads were made from natural materials such as stones, clay, plant materials such as doum palm nuts and bamboo stems, animal materials such as ostrich eggshells, bones such as the Batik Bone bead of Kenya, buffalo horn, and marine shells such as the Conus. These materials continue to be used today. Similarly, metal beads have been made from gold, bronze, and brass especially in West African countries such as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, and Senegal. Silver has also been traditionally popular in Ethiopia. Finally, glass beadmaking is also an ancient tradition in Africa where it has been practiced for at least 1000 years. The two techniques for making glass beads that dominate in Africa are Powder-glass Beadmaking and Bida Glass Beadmaking.
The uses of beads in Africa are as varied as the materials used to make them. Beadwork is very popular in many African nations and is integrated into many art forms including clothing such as the stand-out collars of the Maasai tribe, headdresses and belts, wooden sculptures, small leather amulets, and a myriad of jewelry items where beads are regarded as items of wealth, power, and status. Because of their long history, beads continue to play a role in many traditional rites and ceremonies such as coming-of-age, circumcision, marriage, burial, and local festivals.
The number of different African and African Trade Bead varieties in existence today is enormous. Any attempt at classification is further complicated by the fact that many beads have been reworked and redecorated over time to conform to local tastes and preferences. Some of the most well known varieties of African Beads today are Krobo Beads, Kakamba Beads, Mali Clay Beads and Mali Wedding Beads, Chevrons, Millefiori, Vaseline Beads, White Heart Beads, Kiffa Beads, and Hebron Beads.