African Trade Beads

The history of beads dates back to our ancient ancestors. The earliest known beads were made out of readily available, simple materials including bone, ivory, teeth, seeds, stone, wood and a variety of plant and insect resins. The first beads were possibly worn as protection against uncontrollable events and the forces of nature, as well as to show one’s status in the community and to enhance beauty. As bead making increased, and trade routes were established, the use of beads for trade began.

Trade beads are usually associated with West Africa, where they are usually found, but they were originally created in Venice, Bohemia, and Holland. The history of trade beads dates back to the end of the fifteenth century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of West Africa. In those days, beads were a major component of the currency exchanged for people and products. Over the four centuries that followed, millions of beads were traded to Africa, and by the nineteenth century, European bead makers were producing a wide variety of designs specifically for the African trade, such as millefiori, chevrons, striped melons, feather, and eye beads.

Trade beads became more popular in the West when Africa began supplying beads in large numbers and in a diverse array of colours, materials, and shapes, from the late 1960s. Bead lovers from all over the world now eagerly collect trade beads. However, care is needed to verify their authenticity.