Africans have valued cowrie-shell and bone beads since well before written history. Tribes eagerly accepted the sleek, shiny glass beads that 15th-century European traders offered in exchange for commodities such as salt, gold, palm oil or ivory.
Because trade beads were typically produced on demand to suit the tastes of those on the receiving end, their designs varied from village to village. And since their production numbers were in the thousands, it can be difficult to link specific ones to particular African regions. One exception is the large, round, chunky variety known as “Dutch Dogons,” which were produced in the Netherlands or Germany during the 19th century. They have been found in vast quantities in central Mali, home of the Dogon tribespeople. Most are bright cobalt blue, while others are brown, black, or white.
Thousands upon thousands of African trade beads were also produced in Venice and Murano, Italy. Doughnut and pineapple-shape glass chevrons, which are the most common, feature characteristic layering produced by winding multiple molten colored glass rods around hollow canes. This resulted in a layered stripe or ornamental rosetta-star pattern, usually in combinations of red, white, and blue. Deep green chevron beads, known as “watermelons,” feature delicate white, green, and red stripes.
Bi-conical king chevrons, highly favored by tribal chiefs, do not depict rosettas. Instead, they display characteristic horizontal stripes produced by winding molten yellow, black, and green glass threads around long, thin central rods, then shaping them.
Spherical French cross beads, also known as “Bedoums,” range from 5mm to more than 12mm (roughly a quarter to a half-inch) in size. As with king chevrons, they were created by winding molten glass around metal cores. Most feature thin, colorful crosses or trailed designs applied by hand. Because these beads were produced in limited numbers, many Africans, particularly those in central Mali and along the coast of West African, found them desirable.
Venetian skunk beads, on the other hand, were traded along the coast of East Africa. As merchants ventured inland in search of additional resources, these distinctive red, black, or white dotted pieces, also known as “eye beads,” eventually found their way to Mali.
Throughout Africa, Venetian millefiori, or “thousand flower” beads, were the most prized of all. They featured tiny floral patterns created by arranging colorful glass threads in hollow glass rods that were fused, then drawn thin. After slicing these rods into tiny, slender, cross-sectional round discs, each disc was shaped around a metal core and fired.
During the mid-1800s, large, luminous moon beads, likely invented in Murano, appeared on select sample cards used by European bead manufacturers to market their wares. These beads are often associated with the Yoruba people of present-day Nigeria, who believed that the moon held spiritual significance.
From the 19th century on, enormous numbers of African trade beads were produced in Bohemia. Most were inspired by so-called “bead researchers” who, after consulting with merchants across Europe, brought sketches of popular designs to Bohemian glass manufacturers. Though most of their beads were relatively simple, innovative technical strides allowed uniform, high-quality, speedy production.
Bohemian Mali wedding beads, popular among the Fulani people, often resembled pineapples, hourglasses or lightbulbs. Their bulbous shapes, which symbolized fertility in Mali culture, sparked a tradition of fathers giving them to daughters just before a wedding. The beads were available in single opaque shades as well as flecked and striped varieties.
Round or oval Bohemian colodontes, also known as “hummingbird egg” or “pigeon egg” beads, resemble smooth, round, glossy eggs like those laid by small birds. They have been found not only in Mali, but also along the West African coast.
As African trade beads passed from hand to hand and continent to continent, many suffered fading, pitting, chipping, and other signs of excessive use. Yet today, each is a poignant, visually striking and highly collectible piece of history.