Travel Blog

African beads and their history Back
African beads and their history
27 May, 2015

From the earliest times nomadic tribes have used beads for adornment, magic and bartering. Beads are some of Africa’s oldest artifacts, unlikely to erode like other crafts. African artisans continue to create beautiful beadwork unique to their tribe or region.






These incredibly rare necklaces originate from the Nupe tribe in northern Nigeria. Multiple stings of antique beads are twisted together and finished off with brass coils, knotted details and a beaded edge.



The smaller the beads, the older and more valuable the necklace. These particular Nupe necklaces are around 60 – 80 years old. Antique Nupe necklaces often possess 18th century ‘white hearts’ – red beads with an inside white layer.



In days gone by, the Hausa people of northern Nigeria believed that wearing snake vertebrae acted as a talisman against snakebites. Recognising the value tribesmen placed on these necklaces, European traders created colourful interlocking beads resembling the vertebrae of the snake to use when bartering.



The bone beads below were crafted in Kenya. In comparison to other African beads, bone-beads are lightweight but strong – craftsmen are able to carve and polish them into various shapes and sizes, often combining wooden elements in their bead-making. Their decorative patterns are formed through a wax relief method called batik.




Most African trade beads are Venetian, dating back to the mid-1800’s. Venetian beads were distributed worldwide and traded by the thousands through Africa in the late 1800’s. The process of glass bead production was a highly guarded secret in Italy. Trade beads were bartered for ivory, gold and slaves. Rumour has it, Christopher Columbus traded glass trade beads during his early voyages.

In amongst strings of trade beads you will find rare patterned Millefiori – “a thousand flowers” beads.





Recycled glass beads are fashioned by the Krobo tribe in Ghana. First, recycled glass is crushed and compressed into dry grain. The grain is heated, fusing the glass pieces together. The recycled glass is then rushed into a cast – the bead maker uses cassava leaf stems to create bead-holes. Finally the beads are placed in a homemade furnace causing the glass to melt together and cassava stems to burn away.

Recycled blass beads range from neutral white and beige tones to shades of red, orange, blue, purple and green.