From Europe to Africa and Back
Trade beads were used by Europeans for the exchange of goods with peoples in Africa, Asia and America. The beads, which were introduced, bartered and traded primarily from the 15th century onwards, are found on all continents.
Due to the trade with the New World, Africa and Asia, the European glass bead industry experienced an enormous boost which lasted into the 20th century. For the Europeans, trading beads meant maximizing profits. This much sought-after merchandise was bartered in exchange for gold, ivory, palm oil and slaves.
The most important centres of the glass industry were Venice, resp. the island of Murano, Bohemia, the Czech Republic and Holland. In Germany, Idar-Oberstein was dominant, in particular in producing agate beads. Artistically manufactured agate beads were exported by the tonne to Africa between 1830 and 1980!
Beads and the Slave Trade
The reason why beads were so highly prized in many cultures, that some peoples were willing to exchange this relatively inferior product (from today's point of view) for top-quality gold and even humans, lies in the cultural and traditional meaning of beads. In Africa in particular beads have always played a great role in all rituals and important life phases such as birth, marriage, war, status and in death.
The most well-known beads are probably the Millefiori beads made in factories in Venice and Murano. These beads are usually one to 5 cm in length and have coloured, often flower-shaped patterns, (Millefiori - Italian for a thousand flowers) and were coveted by all. In Ghana, Millefiori beads are often referred to as "Aggery Beads".
The Chevron Bead, first made in Murano and later copied by the Dutch, also called "the mother of all beads", was made with a special technique to bring out the typical zigzag pattern. The blue-white-red variation is the most well-known, but there are also variations in green, black and red. Chevron beads can be dated roughly according to the number of layers. The oldest beads, created around 1500 in Venice, have 7 layers of glass while younger beads have progressively fewer layers.
one can still
find trade beads at markets all over the world.
Many antique beads are rarities and are highly valued and highly priced.
Initially, bead making largely took place on a local scale. The steady growth of various kingdoms throughout the ages brought an increase in bead production and subsequent trade. Empires eventually traded with each other on a global scale, forming world-wide bead trading networks. Throughout history, there have been six such global networks, all of which continue to operate to this day:
The stone bead industry of western India
This industry is some 4000 - 5000 years old. The main products are brown onyx and red carnelian.
The coral bead industry of the Mediterranean
Red coral grows in the Mediterranean Sea and is fished on both northern and southern coasts. The material is harvested in Europe, Egypt and north-western Africa. India has been the biggest customer of red coral for 2000 years.
The eastern Mediterranean glass bead industry
Glass production began in the eastern Mediterranean and glass beads from various centres have supplied the market for centuries. Beads were produced and traded in great quantities during the Roman and Islamic periods. After the destruction of the Middle Eastern glass centres, the industry only survives on at a few small centres.
The Indo-Pacific bead industry
The beads produced by this industry were the greatest trade item of all time. Trade flourished for 2000 years and were first made in southern India several centuries B.C. Only a small remnant survives in a small village in southern India.
The Chinese glass bead industry
The Chinese began to export glass beads about a thousand years ago. Initially, their markets included neighbouring Southeast Asia, reached as far as East Africa, and after the discovery of America, they poured into Mexico and California.
The West European glass bead industry:
This is the youngest of the great bead industries. Beads were manufactured in Europe for a long time but the export network only developed around A.D. 1500 when Europeans began to explore the globe. Venetian, Dutch and Czech beads were given away, bartered and sold to the people of Africa, Asia and America most of whom usually ended up as colonial subjects to Europe. Beads were traded for gold, ivory, raw materials and slaves. They served as currency and were typically made of glass, though semi-precious stones were also popular. To this day these beads are known as Trade Beads.
(c) African Pearls | 2004 - 2014