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How Ghana Brass Beads Are Handmade

Browsing through our variegated assortment of African Brass Beads here at The Bead Chest, there is a somewhat noticeable trait shared by the majority of styles - be they of wound or filigree variety. Have you picked up on it?

We are, of course referring to their native regions of origin - notably Kenya and Ethiopia. Both regions of Africa are affiliated with the mass production of brass beads, while Ghana sets the benchmark when it comes to the production of recycled glass beads. It may surprise you then to learn, that Ghana too has been accredited with producing some of the more ornate African Brass Beads exemplified within our "Metal Beads" category.

Ethiopia and Kenya are located to the East, along a strip of  land that encompasses the "Horn of  Africa". The copper and metal mining industries have been active within this part of Africa for over three decades years, due to the rich mineral deposits found in Debarwa and Sidamo. As such, the mineral utilized for bead production was far more accessible than within Ghana which is more widely known for the concentration of gold deposits within the region.

Ghana, therefore has had to be far more resourceful when it comes to brass bead production, adopting similar recycling practices that have fueled the glass bead industry. Brass is mainly sourced from the throwaway metals of big industrial companies, however also from everyday functional mechanisms such as locks and padlocks. Similarly to the artisans of Kenya and Ethiopia, the Ghanaian Ashante tribe  of Kumasi (primary producers of Ghana Brass Beads) have adopted a relief process known as the "lost wax" method, which is said to date back to 9th Century Nigeria.

To say that the casting of brass beads is delicate is an understatement. Prior to any metalwork, the template or mold for the bead must be created by hand, requiring exceptional skill and attention to detail. The artisan utilizes a naturally abundant supply of beeswax, which is refined until malleable via a gentle heating and cooling process. This achieves a plasticine-like consistency, which is then robust enough to be shaped.

To create the intricate filigree work frame (an inherent characteristic of Ghana Brass Beads), small threads of beeswax are slowly wound around a form to create a hollow shell. The patina is usually just a free-hand inspiration of the crafter, however some  of symbols and shapes are representative of meaningful talisman designs, or codes.

The beeswax frame is thus encased within a clay mold. Usually, there will be up to ten or fifteen per clay mold, which is fired for a brief period to harden . Molten brass will be added via individual holes at the top of the mold, which is fired once more to melt the beeswax within. The whole process takes from 3-6 hours, and it is only once the mold is completely cooled (for a further 5 hours) that the brass beads may be extracted from the clay. The only way to do so, is by cracking open the mold with a hard implement such as a stone. Each bead is then carefully teased from it's shell using the sharpened head of a toothpick stick. A degree of polishing using beeswax, tree sap or a similar plant derivative is then undertaken to create a high shine, and remove any further traces of clay.

Whether purchased as a string, or a loose family collection - no two Ghana Brass Beads are ever the same. Take a look at the delicate forms we have right here at The Bead Chest - they make truly irresistible pendants!