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From Powder Glass to Trade Beads: The Different Types of African Beads

Throughout history the natural hues, shapes and craftsmanship of African Beads have recognized them as beautiful additions to symbolic adornments - as well as a useful format of trade currency from the 12th Century. Prosser Beads are a prime example of a simple design once used as common currency. Now, these coveted beads are much-loved for their worn appearance, uneven texture and historic value - a great format of bead for reproducing stunning tribal jewelry, for which Africa has become so well-known.

What Are Some Popular Types of African Beads?

With a multifarious range of popular African Beads on the market, it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between Old Padre Beads, and the endearingly worn Old Annular Wound Dogon Beads. Here we look at the most popular types of African Beads, along with the characteristics that make them distinguishable.

Powder Glass Beads from Ghana & Elsewhere

The term "powder glass beads" can be attributed to any variant made using the recycled glass procedure, and have been popular since the 18th Century, when used as a currency for trade. The Krobo people of Ghana are attributed with the earliest production of powder glass beads, widely recognized as the eco-friendly alternative to blown-glass creations. Glass remnants were sourced from general waste such as broken bottles and jars; common colors being green, brown and transparent. Ground down to a fine powder-like consistency known as "fritt", the remnants were then added to porcelain molds - usually conical or spherical. The mold is lined with a clay known as kaolin, along with water to ensure the "fritt" does not stick. The molds are placed in a kiln, where temperatures in excess of 300F melt the fritt. Prior to cooling, the glass will be shaped using an "awl"- a flat planing tool made from wood or stone. The Earth Swirl Recycled Glass Beads sold here at The Bead Chest, are exemplary of the early colors of powder beads and their uneven finish. Glass sourced prior to the 20th Century was typically transparent, green or brown, because glass dye had not yet become common. Krobo beads are the most popular type of recycled African Beads, and as demand for use as a currency increased during the 1800's, took on more detailed designs. Our selection of Krobo Fancy Powder Glass Beads detail some of the best examples of Krobo Beads, customized with hand-painted patterns and abstract designs.

Metal Beads

The use of iron and copper ore was once popular for smelting alternate Heishi Beads, which were traditionally made from shell. As mining began to dominate industries in Africa during the 19th Century, metal beads became more common. Ethiopia is particularly known for tubular and spherical beads made from copper, brass and white metal. The beauty of Round White Metal Ethiopian Beads (stocked here at The Bead Chest) lies within their versatility. They can be used as spacer beads for jewelry projects, or strung together for a modern, contemporary piece. Ethiopian metal beads come in a variety of shapes including: donuts, bi-cones and tubes, and are made from either copper, white metal or in some rare cases - brass. Metal filigree beads have constituted some of the most popular African exports since the development of mining, and African silversmiths have gained notoriety for fine craftsmanship and intricate detailing - which can rarely be replicated. Filigree is a traditional hand-crafting process whereby brass or silver wire is manipulated into swirls, curls and dots whilst hot. Modern machinery now replicates this handiwork using a stamping process, creating uniform beads which are practically identical. As you will see from our Brass Filigree Triangle Beads, when handmade - no two are ever alike.

Natural Beads

The earliest decorative beads (undoubtedly worn for decoration) were found during archaeological excavation at the Blombos Cave on the coast of South Africa, and thought to be over 75,000 years old. These early beads were made from Nassarius (nassa mud snail) shells sourced from the immediate area. With landscapes rich in minerals and natural materials, African tribes-people have long looked to nature for their resources - a tradition which continues today in African tribal beads. Long before African beads (made from glass) were used for trade, the use of Agate, wood, bone and teeth were most common in the production of beads for adornments and currency. Batik is a dyeing process which has long been used to create unique, contrasting abstract designs upon hewn beads which were predominantly white or cream in color. Dye also became useful for the coloring/ polishing of wooden beads such as the Mixed Horn Beads we have here at The Bead Chest. When browsing our collections of natural African Beads, you will doubtless come across the wonderful inter-locking snake beads, recognized as brilliant spacers for jewelry projects and a strung accessory in their own right. The glass variants are created to simulate the original snake bead strings made from snake vertebrae. Check out our Real Snake Vertebrae Beads from Africa, to see for yourself.

Trade Beads

African Trade Beads refer to beads once used in exchange for goods - essentially used as a form of currency from the 12th Century. Prior to the powder glass beads of the 18th-19th Century, the most common technique was winding - a manual process where molten glass was gradually wound around a manvil (rod), held over a basic furnace. Old Padre Beads are a prime example of early beads made in this way. African tribes-people are renowned for exquisite craftsmanship and experimentation with the winding process led to new techniques being adopted. These are evident within our popular Chevron Beads sold here at The Bead Chest; typically oval or spherical in shape and striped in appearance. The use of natural dyes during the melting of glass also contributed to the fascinating array of color variations, evident within our collection. Venetian Trade Beads are among the most popular variant of trade bead we sell. These striking beads were once a coveted currency when European merchants came to Africa - exchangeable for furs, tools and fuels produced within many regions. Intricate designs can be found upon our Old Antique Venetian Trade Beads in the form of Millefiori (thousand flower) and striped examples.

Other Popular Types of African Glass Beads

Our most popular variants of African Beads also include Christmas Beads - strings of brightly colored trade beads averaging 33 inches in length. These delightful strands comprise of trade beads made in Southern Spain and Venice, brought to Africa during the merchant trade era. Christmas Beads were notably popular during the 1960's when fashion was as bright, as the glass beads were made from. Browse our store to learn about and shop for even more types of African Beads.