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Trade Beads: First-String Collectibles

A collection of several strands of trade beads, boasting a range of colors, realized $125 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2015. Image courtesy of Sterling Associates and LiveAuctioneers

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. 

A strand of Dogon cobalt glass ring or “annular” beads sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of Allard Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

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. 

A string of African chevron trade beads realized $80 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy North American Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

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. 

A group of Venetian millefiori glass trade beads achieved $475 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2016. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

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. 

Multiple strands of yellow-dominated Venetian glass African trade beads sold for $240 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

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. 

A trade bead collection including millefiori, chevron, sand cast, wound glass and Hudson Bay red-white hearts realized $150 plus the buyer’s premium i

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. 

Cartier, Bulgari headline Designer Jewelry & Watches sale

On Wednesday, October 20, starting at 11 am Eastern time, Jasper52 will conduct a 426-lot sale with the title of Designer Jewelry & Watches. Treasures on offer include a Cartier Byzantine 18K gold bracelet with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds; a Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra 18K yellow gold, coral, and diamond ring; a Bulgari Cicladi 18K white gold link chain necklace; a Mikimoto 18K white gold, pearl and diamond bracelet and necklace set; a Temple St. Clair cord bracelet with a serpent charm; and literally hundreds more from houses, firms, and artisans you admire.

Cartier Byzantine 18K gold bracelet with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, est. $18,000-$22,000

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Jasper52 offers stylish Deco, Retro, & Nouveau Jewelry, Oct. 20

Sure, contemporary jewelry is fun, but vintage jewelry has a sparkle all its own. Pieces fashioned in the Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Retro styles still speak to us, even though they could have been worn by our grandparents or great-grandparents when they were new. On Wednesday, October 20, starting at 4 pm Eastern time, Jasper52 will host a sale titled Deco, Retro, & Nouveau Jewelry: 1910-1950s, a tightly curated 36-lot offering of choice pieces from the not-so-distant past.

Circa-1940s asymmetrical 14K yellow gold ring with diamonds and rubies, est. $22,000-$26,000

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Harry Winston & more shine in Designer and Signed Jewelry auction Oct. 13

NEW YORK – Jewelry is great; designer jewelry and signed pieces of jewelry are better still. On Wednesday, October 13, starting at 8 pm Eastern time, Jasper52 will conduct a sale of Designer and Signed Jewelry. The generous selection of 246 lots features a trove of treasures ranging from brooches by Cartier to bangles by Harry Winston to Tiffany & Co. tie pins to Oscar Heyman bracelets to David Webb earrings to Mario Buccellati necklaces to Van Cleef & Arpels yellow sapphire rings, as well as literally hundreds more.

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Designer & Signed Jewelry sparkles in Sept. 29 New York auction

On Wednesday, September 29, starting at 8 pm Eastern time, Jasper52 will hold an auction of Designer & Signed Jewelry – 225 lots of treasures from Tiffany & Co., David Webb, David Yurman, Harry Winston, Oscar Heyman, Angela Cummings, Marina B, Alberto Juan, Henry Dunay, H. Stern, Cartier, Chaumet, Bulgari, Buccellati, Garrard, Van Cleef & Arpels, Graff, Piaget, Carrera y Carrera, Picchiotti, Boucheron, Greenleaf & Crosby, Christian Dior, Mikimoto, Fred Leighton, Hemmerle, Chanel, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and, believe it or not, still more brands and illustrious names than that.

Circa-1980s emerald and diamond ring by Harry Winston, est. $252,000-$302,000

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Top jewelry designers’ work showcased in Jasper52 sale Feb. 16

Featuring iconic designs from Cartier, Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels, Jasper52’s online fine jewelry auction will be conducted on Tuesday, Feb. 16. This special sale offers only the best in luxury jewelry, watches and fashion.

Van Cleef & Arpels Fleurette 18K gold ruby diamond double flower ring, size 4¾. Estimate: $16,000-$19,000. Jasper52 image

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Peter Max jewelry featured in Jasper52 jewelry sale Feb. 3

Bidders competing in a Jasper52 auction of Antique to Modern Fine Jewelry have their pick of nearly 400 lots in an online sale Wednesday, Feb. 3. This unique jewelry auction showcases fine jewelry from a variety of designers, eras and mediums. This auction offers unique treasures, from heirloom estate pieces to elegant showstoppers.

Peter Max button necklace or belt, circa 1960, 39in long. Estimate: $12,000-$14,000. Jasper52 image

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Luxury designer jewelry showcased in online auction Jan. 26

More than 300 lots of designer jewelry and watches are offered in a Jasper52 online auction that will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 26. Featuring iconic designs from Piaget, Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels and others, this special sale contains only the best in luxury jewelry, watches and fashion.

Cartier Panthere 18K yellow gold diamond, rhodolite and garnet enamel ring with Cartier certificate and Cartier box. Estimate: $14,000-$17,000. Jasper52 image

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Victorian-era tiara stars in Jasper52 jewelry sale Dec. 29

A 150-year-old gold Persian tiara, sparkling with 8.5 carats of diamonds and rubies, is one of the fantastic pieces in a Jasper52 online auction of Exclusive Estate and Designer Jewelry that will be conducted on Tuesday, Dec. 29.

Yellow gold diamond and rubies Persian tiara, 79.5 grams, circa 1870. Estimate: $17,000-$20,000. Jasper52 image

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Jasper52 presents Swiss-made Natkina jewelry Dec. 21

Swiss jewelry brand Natkina is presenting its fine jewelry of previous and current collections in a Jasper52 online auction on Monday, Dec. 21. Nearly 600 lots of Natkina contemporary designs are described and pictured in the Jasper52 auction catalog.

Tsavorite, diamond and 18K yellow gold dangle earrings. Estimate: $18,000-$22,000. Jasper52 image

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Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.