AFRICAN TRADE BEADS
Africa has been one of the most important crossroads in the international trade of glass beads that started in the Middle Ages, primarily between Europe, the Middle East and India.
In African territory, glass was considered rarer than precious stones and so glass beads, particularly the Venetian production, spread across the African continent and were even bartered for slaves to be exported to the New World, and for the gold and ivory that reached the European courts. So, since the fifteenth century, Africa has imported millions of tons of beads of endless shapes and qualities.
Some European glass works began to specialize in certain designs to suit the taste, culture and religious beliefs of different ethnic groups and tribes. The documentation gathered at the Museum of Mankind in London allows you to identify beads used in the purchase of gold in West Africa, which were predominantly yellow-patterned eye and written spinning beads; monochrome and predominantly red and turquoise in Central Africa; boheme beads used for the purchase of slaves were conical or cylindrical, faceted, almost all blue.
In certain parts of Africa the beads were also used as free currency, the only currency universally accepted even in the most remote areas. The nineteenth-century great explorers of the African continent used african beads as currency to buy services and food supplies during expeditions.
Transfigured glass beads were mounted, not only on majestic jewels and powerful talismans to adorn and protect people, but also on sacred and fetish objects, indispensable in ceremonies and initiations. They are also a visual means of communicating age, social membership and hierarchy within the community.
The popularity of these beads was revived in the late 1960s when they began to be exported from Africa into the United States and Europe.During this time the term “trade beads” became very popular and is still used today to refer to this type of pearls, which have become a collector’s item all over the world.
There are exceptional museum collections of trade beads at the Museum of Mankind in London, the Pitt River Museum in Oxford, the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium, the Murano Museum of Glass in Italy, the Tropical Royal Institute of Amsterdam, and the Picard Trade Bead Museum in California, to name a few.