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African Trade Beads

By far the most popular African beads among collectors are known as African Trade Beads. They come in all shapes and sizes and are generally glass or ceramic. In the age of exploration and the subsequent colonization of Africa, beads manufactured in Europe were regularly used as a medium of exchange. The most famous of these beads include polychrome millefiore beads (thousand flowers) and multi-layered chevrons. The early Venetian styles were soon copied by other Europeans, including the Dutch and artisans in Eastern Europe. Between 1500 and 1900, millefiore and chevrons were in wide use throughout West and North Africa as payment for gold, salt and slaves.

 Though escalating in value, chevrons can still be found in West Africa. The best deals are in Mali, followed by the markets of Abidjan (Côte d\\\\Ivoire), Dakar (Senegal), and Banjul (The Gambia) A strand of 20-25 chevrons (100-400 years old) will cost about £250, while a strand of 100-year-old millefiore can be had for less than £15. Single chevrons can be bought for about £20. Morocco and Tunisia also have bead markets but prices there have skyrocketed.

 While some might entertain the notion that pre-colonial Africans were easily impressed with worthless bits of glass that resembled precious gems, history shows this was not the case. These new intricate and complex European beads represented a state of technology that was beyond anything Africans had ever seen. After all, beads were already a part of culture throughout Africa and their use as money was well established. Africans quickly learned the techniques of European bead-making, a science that has created cottage industries in villages now wholly devoted to the craft. Most notable today are the Kiffa beads of Mauritania, Krobo glass from Ghana and Bida glass from Nigeria. Status, Wealth and Ritual

 In Africa there is no gender boundary in the realm of beads. Both men and women wear beads for a variety of reasons including adornment and status. In the Congo (formerly Zaire) the Kuba kings wear elaborate costumes decorated with colorful beads and cowrie shells. Most splendid among these is the royal ceremonial bwaantshy, worn on state occasions. These extravagant costumes can weigh over 180 pounds, including the tunic, robes, belts, gloves, shoes and an elaborate headdress with an attached beaded beard. Surrounding the king are symbols of office, his throne, the dais and the royal drum-every square inch covered in beaded designs. When a king dies, he is buried in his bwaantshy. Equally exquisite are the royal Kuba masks covered in beads and cowrie shells. These masks are thought to impart psychic powers to the king, enabling him to detect those who might plot against him. Further north are the Yoruba and Dahomian kings of Nigeria and Benin. Yoruba kings wear crowns that are cone-shaped and sport beaded veils. In Yoruba tradition, strands of beads are the emblems of the gods. In addition to geometrical designs, royal attire often features beaded representations of ancestors and creatures who facilitate communication with the spirit world.

 Bamum beadwork from neighboring Cameroon is legendary. Cowrie shells (mbuum) were used as money and to this day mbuum is the Bamum word for money. When the Bamum Kingdom expanded at the beginning of the 19th century, beads were extremely rare. Tiny glass beads called "seed beads" were imported from Nigeria and coastal areas to the south. The Bamum conquered the small kingdom of Mamegnam and brought their bead-makers to the royal court, establishing a tradition of beaded royal regalia. The Bamum kings controlled the money supply (beads and cowries), enabling them to establish an aristocracy whose beaded clothing signified their authority.

 Bodum beads from Ghana are the ancestors of present-day powdered glass beadmaking in Ghana. Old and valuable (imbued with magical and medicinal powers), they are passed down through families and are also used in funeral ceremonies. Legend has it that Bodums are born of the earth-and if buried again, will reproduce themselves. The Akan kings and others of Ghana and Côte d\\\\Ivoire also wear beads on state occasions. Beads are often part of a royal treasury and during festivals, they are loaned out to relatives and members of the royal court. All across West Africa, beads have long held a sacred place in animist religions. The voodoo priesthoods of Benin, Togo and Ghana use beads in rituals, and they are often left at shrines as offerings to the gods. It is forbidden to touch beads worn by a priestess or the Queen Mother of a royal family. These customs extend to fetish cults from Ghana to Sierra Leone and north to Senegal.

 In South Africa, the Zulu sangoma are respected elders who function as traditional healers and perform acts of sorcery such as predicting the future. The sangoma prepares bead-covered gourds that contain herbs and medicines to assist in healing and to protect the wearer from various misfortunes. One preparation called an ishungu is designed to induce fertility in women who experience difficulty in conceiving. The sangomas also use divination tools covered in beadwork and wear beaded costumes and head attire. Colors and patterns convey messages, in a complex litany of coded meanings that are unique to Zulu bead culture.123