No-one quite knows when metalsmithing was first introduced to Africa. However, we do know it was adopted by tribes along the Southern and Eastern Capes for purposes other than tools and weapons. African Metal Beads, in their various forms, have been used for centuries as currency across the continent. The earliest known examples were of a similar size to Heishi Beads, and commonly made from silver, brass or tin, mined in the Nok region of Nigeria.
Copper deposits discovered in West Africa made African Metal Beads far more accessible from the 18th Century, leading to their being adopted into the rites, beliefs and traditional attire of many cultures. Brass, on the other hand, was a rare commodity in Africa until the 20th Century. However, that hasn't stopped many tribes from actively seeking out brass scrap for bead-making. Diverse and beautiful, African Metal Beads run the gamut of shapes and styles. Here are just three of our favorites.
Ghana Brass Beads
Ghana is predominantly known for its glass bead production. However, glass isn't the only material being recycled for the purpose of producing beads. From boilers and radiator pipes to old padlocks and door knobs, the resourceful Ashante utilize an abundance of industrial and household objects to produce African Metal Beads. Much like the copper beads produced in the Krobo, Ghana Brass Beads are typically more ornate in comparison to those from other parts of Africa.
Filigree designs are achieved by creating models from beeswax, which are then encased in a crucible with a hole at the top. As molten brass is poured into the crucible, it adheres to the wax, taking on the structure of the model as it sets. Since beeswax is both pliable and easy to manipulate, all manner of designs are possible, including leaves, evil eyes, and large whorls. Baule Brass Beads are produced using a similar “lost wax” technique, however tend to be far simpler in design, and flat with an enclosed tube running through the center. Baule Brass Beads typically feature sun and moon designs, both of which are important symbols in the Akan faith.
Ethiopian Metal Beads
A nomadic people originating from the Sahara, the Tuareg are widely credited with the introduction of metalsmithing to Ethiopia. And it is their influence which has spawned the sheer diversity of Ethiopian Metal Beads made today. The vast majority of Ethiopian Metal Beads are produced from white metals, such as tin, antimony, and nickel. Pliable and easy to manipulate, tin is often mixed with zinc to produce wound Ethiopian Heishi Beads and tube beads. The irregular size and shape of these beads makes them an extremely popular choice of spacer in contemporary ethnic designs.
Ethiopian Prayer Beads are highly sought after due to their colorful history. Introduced to Africa sometime around the 15th Century, they played a pivotal role in the conversion of natives to Christianity, and continue to be used as a form of Rosary today. Ironically, Ethiopian Prayer Beads are also very similar to those used in the Islamic faith during periods of fasting, prayer and repentance. Many intact old strands comprise 33 or 66 beads because of their former purpose.
Kenya Heishi Metal Beads
Although rather better known for its beautiful natural beads, Kenya too produces a limited number of African Metal Beads using upcycled metal scrap. The vast majority are are produced by the Borana Oromo people of Northern Kenya; renowned tinsmiths who have a time-honored history of transforming old pots and pans into beads for personal adornment. Aesthetically, Kenya Heishi Metal Beads are not dissimilar to those from Ethiopia. However, they tend to be rather more uniform in size and shape compared to their Ethiopian counterparts, and are often darker in color due to the different alloys used.