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Uses of African Trade Beads: Collector's Items

This is the fourth post in a five-part series on the different uses of African trade beads. Today we are discussing the use of beads as collectible items. Newcomers to the variegated world of African Trade Beads can often feel overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of styles, shapes and ages of such beads, because they are unaware of the history behind these decorative jewelry ornaments. The African Trade Bead industry has in fact been very much alive and thriving since the 13th Century when layered glass Chevrons were exchanged for ballast between Portuguese/ Spanish merchants and indigenous African Tribes. Like most antiquities, African Trade Beads have recognized their own niche within the International antiques market, prized for their unique history and considerable rarity in today's age. The secondary factor influencing trade beads as collectibles, stems from their history as one of the earliest currency formats ever known to exist. Prior to the glass trade beads used in the Middle Ages, Clay Whorl Beads (similar to our Mali Clay Spindle Whorl Beads here at The Bead Chest) were thought to have been a currency format used for trade between the tribes of Mali, Mauritania and Kenya. Now, such beads can realize a value in excess of $500 for those datable to the 14th/ 15th Centuries. When searching for Old Antique Trade Beads, you'll come across an overwhelming variety of styles and colors – some priced in excess of a thousand dollars. Many collectible variants such as our Old Venetian African Trade Beads sold at The Bead Chest, can be dated back to the early 19th Century when trade beads supported a booming merchant economy in Africa. The people of Ghana are attributed with the production of a quantitative proportion of these latter-day beads – notably the Krobo people who pioneered the art of producing Recycled Glass Beads. Classic 7-layer Chevron Beads are among the most sought after of all collectible trade beads, as they signify the birth of the trade bead era. Chevrons were created using a process known as “drawing” or “winding”, which in the 15th Century was a relatively unpracticed concept. Early beads would feature the prominent stripes we associate with Chevrons, albeit with far less detail. Beads from this time were considerably larger than their latter day, 19th Century 12-layer counterparts and are now so rare, that few exist outside of museum and private collections. Should you find yourself in possession of these early examples, you could expect a value in excess of $100 per bead, depending on whether they can be dated, and their origin verified. 18th - 19th Century Chevrons typically comprised of 7-12 layers, dependent upon their origin. Most were produced in the “bead capital” Venice, and took on the variegated aesthetics similar to our Multicolor Striped Watermelon Chevron Beads, right here at The Bead Chest. Are you considering starting your own abundant collection of fascinating African Trade Beads? If so, we can help. Here at The Bead Chest, we stock a stunning array of Old Annular Wound Dogon Beads, Old Mixed Venetian Trade Beads and rustic Hebron Kano Beads to name but a few!