The history of beads dates as far back as 40,000 years ago and they have been made by every culture since then. Egyptians were making glass beads by 1365 B.C., and several thousand-year old glass factories in Lebanon are still in production. Glass and Brass beads have been found in burial sites of many cultures: Egyptian tombs, Roman catacombs, Saxon, African, and American Indian burial places. African trade beads formed an important element in early trade networks between Europe and Africa as they were made in Europe - particularly Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands - and used in trade in Africa. The beads were popular as glass making technology had not yet been discovered in Africa. Therefore, African people were in awe of the exquisite beads of glass that the European traders had to offer, making them unusual and precious. They were particularly valued and sought after in West Africa, where they were often used in the creation of high-status decorative art objects, such as an Asante (Ashanti) necklace from Ghana that a member the court would wear. Trade beads were not of a set form but were produced according to demand, which could vary from region to region, village to village, resulting in many thousands of different designs. Some designs were particularly popular, such as the millefiori ("thousand flower") form manufactured in Venice, which reinvented an ancient technique from western Asia to produce color beads formed of small cross sections of multi colored canes fused together or embedded into a matrix. Reinventions of an ancient Roman and Egyptian forms were also popular. Below some antique Venetian Millefiori beads from the African trade circa late 1800's, early 1900's.
Beads as currency
Before Africans started using glass beads, beads crafted out of various objects and materials including gold, iron, ivory, and organic objects such as bone beads and cowrie shell served as currency for exchange of goods and services. The history of African Trade beads as currency dates to the 15th century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of West Africa to exploit its many resources, including gold, slaves, ivory and palm oil. At that time glass beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. The beads proved to be a cheap and efficient trading currency, especially since there were already well-known glass bead making factories throughout Europe that just increased their production as a result of the growing African demand. The success of this form of currency can largely be attributed to the high intrinsic value African people put on decorative items. Africans often used beads for currency (often referred to as African money) and wealth storage, and social status could be easily determined by the quality, quantity and style of jewelry worn. This created a high demand for trade beads in West Africa and resulted in quite an extensive catalog of designs that has remained to today. Some designs can be given a more precise provenance through dated sample cards, sample books or bead catalogs produced by European bead trading houses in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries now held in museum collections.
Rites and Ceremonies
When African Trade Beads were demonetized in the late 19th century, they took on new roles within West African society primarily with respect to their aesthetic value. Wearing beads has since their demonitization been incorporated into coming-of-age rituals, annual festivals, child outdooring ceremonies, and various other celebrations. For instance the Dipo ceremony -- the rite of puberty among the Krobo people of Ghana -- is the celebration of a young girl's transition into womanhood. During the ceremony, she will shed her old clothes, go through a cleansing ritual and be adorned with white new attire along with family beads around her waist that will have been passed down from generations. Beads are also worn during marriage ceremonies to show off the pedigree of the heirloom of the family. And funerals are another occasion which calls for the wearing of beads. The body may be laid in state wearing some of the finest bead necklaces to be found in the family heirloom.
Marks of Status
The quantity, quality and style of beads one possesses or wears shows one's importance and wealth in Ghanaian and West African society. Some beads such as a large Bodom is so valuable that it is said that a Chief is not a Chief or a Queen Mother is not a Queen Mother if she/he doesn't have a powerful Bodom Bead. An inventory of Antique beads is passed into new hands only when the new owner-to- be is deemed mature enough to handle the responsibility of becoming the new custodian, someone who will appreciate the legacy and won't sell the heirlooms. The integrity of an inventory remaining intact is very important to family traditions. Below, images of highly-prized antique Chevron beads.
Beads as spiritual ornaments
There is also a strong belief in the strength, the spiritual force, and the healing power of the bead in West Africa. The color of beads, their shapes, sizes and the materials from are made are all thought to be imbued with deep meaning which enables the beads displayed to speak of status, character, and pedigree. Yellow beads represent wealth, success and status. Green beads for their part represent new life and are therefore healing beads to wear when recovering from sickness. Red beads suggest grounding and are best worn when one is feeling a sense of distress and anguish. A combination of white and blue beads on the other hand evoke femininity and the effects of the rising and waning of the moon. A woman may also wear a string of choice small beads as an emblem of sexiness. One Ghanaian proverb has it that “a good bead does not make noise”, implying that good quality speaks silently and unobtrusively, while a Hausa proverb has it that “he/she who is patient with one cowries shell or bead will one day have thousands”, extolling the values of the patient appreciation of small things.
Local production today
Experimentation with bead making has reached historical peaks in Ghana today in a heady mixture of clients, new materials, new creators and new methods. There is a notable increase in the number of glass bead manufacturing establishments with the Krobo area in the Eastern Region of Ghana emerging as the center of the industry. The large number of people involved in the manufacture of trade beads, plus the fact that bead makers - and their designs- have move around geographically over a long period of time, means that it is extremely difficult to attribute a bead to a particular place, maker or time. The production of glass beads today remains an industry of handcrafted beads at an artisanal scale using recycled bottles as well as ground glass.
Today, there are early signs of a resurgence of African Trade beads on the market, both locally and internationally. This resurgence in the making, accumulation and the use of beads gives them life and perpetuity. Young women in West Africa are wearing waist beads and beaded jewelry again as a way to reclaim the past and old traditions as dictated by Sankofa. And there is also an avid group of internationally knowledgeable collectors whose demand for antique African Trade beads continues to grow. Whether this will result in a true renaissance of African trade beads remains to be seen.
1-Ghana: Where the Bead Speaks, Esi Sutherland-Addy, Ama Ata Aidoo, Kati Torda Dagadu- 2011.
2-The Bead is Constant, Edited by Alexandra Wilson - 2003.