History and Materials of Bead Working and African Jewllery

Since ancient times, African peoples have cherished beads and appreciated their beauty. Made of various materials, beads are small, perforated, and often rounded objects found throughout the world. Glass beads, in particular, are a common element of African adornment and are widely used in African clothing and regalia.

Beads have played an important role in the personal lives of Africans and in the court life of African kingdoms, being valued as currency and as an artistic medium. The materials used have varied over time, and include shells, stone, clay, metal, and glass.

The earliest examples of locally manufactured African beads are disk-shaped and made from ostrich eggshells. These date to around 10,000 B.C. and have been recovered from archaeological sites in Libya and Sudan.

Beadwork has often been enhanced and complemented with bead like, brilliantly white cowrie shells, which have also served as currency and source of embellishment and have been widely traded throughout Africa. Stone beads, dated to the first millennium B.C., have been found near Nok, Nigeria; others, dated from the fifth to fifteenth centuries A.D., have been discovered at Djenne, Mali.

Among the Yoruba peoples, a bead making industry flourished in Ilorin, Nigeria, beginning in the 1830s, the bead-makers shaping agate, carnelian, and red jasper stones into beads.

In the fifteenth century, artists in the Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, used coral beads, brought in large quantities by the Portuguese, to make elaborate clothing and regalia for their kings. Bead makers of the Baule peoples in Cote d’ Ivoire modeled and fired clay to create exquisite terra cotta beads.

Another material for beads has been locally obtained and worked metal. Tin beads in the shape of cowne shells have been found at Nok. To this day, the Akan peoples of Ghana and Cote d’lvoire wear gold beads, which their artists cast using the lost-wax method.

Glass, originally in the form of imported beads or bottles, is another important raw material in African bead making. The beadmakers either ground up or broke the glass, melted it, and produced new beads. At Ife, Nigeria, the spiritual home of the Yoruba peoples, a major glass bead industry developed by the ninth century A.D. Glass for this industry was obtained in large quantities from medieval Europe and the Near East. A bead industry also existed in Mapungubwe, South Africa, from A.D. 600 to 1200. It is not known whether the glass for these beads was produced locally or imported.

Throughout history, Africans have imported glass beads and used them for adornment and elaborate beadwork. At Djenne’, Mali, Roman-style and Egyptian Ptolemaic period (304-30 B.C.) glass beads, traded across the Sahara, have been found at sites dated from 300 B.C. to A.D. 200. Along the coast of eastern and southern Africa, small, opaque glass beads from India have been discovered in sites dated to A.D. 200.

Since the fifteenth century, Europeans have brought to Africa millions of glass beads from Italy, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) and The Netherlands.  European companies specialized in bead trade to Africa and offered many styles. They produced “trading cards” to show the assortment of bead types to their African customers. Today, these cards and samples allow researchers to identify and date specific types of beads.

Chevron beads, produced mainly in Venice and shipped to Africa since the sixteenth century, have been especially popular in West Africa. In many regions, men wear them as part of necklace ensembles to demonstrate their status and wealth. In the Grassfields region of Cameroon, for example, kings and important men possess elaborate necklaces with large chevron beads.

The colourful seed beads, in particular, gave rise to many fine beadworking traditions. For example, Ndebele women in South Africa began to create intricate beadwork in the nineteenth century. At the same time, artists in the Grassfields region of Cameroon developed a unique tradition of beaded sculpture.