African Clay Beads are among the earliest bead formats known to man, many archeological finds pre-dating the famous shell hoard of the Blombus Cave on Africa's Southern Cape by as much as 20,000 years. But while tribes in the South and West of Africa have a long affiliation with clay bead production, it is the Dogon tribes of Bandiagara in Mali who are modernly revered for their beautiful black clay creations. Distinguished by their charcoal coloration and elaborate milgrain-like detailing, Mali Clay Spindle Whorl Beads were originally intended for use as currency among trans-Saharan merchants. Their value to merchants was determined by their coloration – the darker the beads, the higher their net worth.
Clay Beads from Mali are distinguishable from other beads in Africa by their coloration. Most natural clay found in Africa is of a reddish-brown hue, however, in the cliffs of Bandiagara, it is near black. Modern crafters often manipulate the hue by adding ground ash, charcoal and the remnants of other pottery or china to the ground down clay mixture. Water, oil and tree gum are added to the mixture to help it adhere during firing, and the clay is then fashioned into a conical spindle whorl shape. Designs are carved into the surface using a hacksaw blade or shard of glass, and the beads are then fired in an open charcoal brazier. Once cool, they are immersed in a whitewash several times before they are left to dry. Excess paint is gently rubbed off using a cloth, leaving just the carved areas decorated. Red clay beads produced by the Zarma people are made using a very similar technique, but although beautiful, they aren't nearly as popular as their black counterparts.