When making jewellery from vintage fragments, I often have to guess at a piece’s age and the fascinating history they have had before they found their way to me. Recently, I was lucky enough to acquire a small hoard of antique and ancient African beads from an estate sale of a someone who had traveled extensively through Africa, but the person selling them on behalf of the estate clearly thought they were junk. I bought them on a hunch, as you do, not really seeing the whole lot. But when I saw what a treasure they were, it prompted me to research them. I found this fascinating history of beads in timeline form.
Many in the lot are possibly ancient, rough stone wheels of jasper and quartz, with what seem to be bow-drilled holes, similar to those unearthed in Mali. But along with these came other glass beads, some very likely hundreds of years old. Some were tin beads resembling those made from melted-down cooking pots.
I made the necklace above from all the blue chevron beads that came in the hoard, graduated like traditional pearls. I have wired them, rosary style, so that the decorative layers, essential in dating the beads, are visible. These are perhaps the youngest beads from the lot, and date from the early 20th century. This style of bead was originally used by Dutch merchants in the late 15th century. Large quantities of the beads were used as ballast on trading ships, including those used in the slave trade. Sometimes African trade beads are called “slave beads” because of this. Manufactured in Venice until the 1950s, this style of bead is still highly prized by collectors.
Beads were manufactured Czechoslovakia, Murano and Venice for trade in Africa. This is an example of a trade bead card. Similar bead cards were produced by bead makers in Venice for European traders in palm oil, gold, ivory and slaves.
Chevron beads are part of African royal treasuries and are highly prized, buried with the dead.
As I researched these beads, I realized that while they were not part of the slave trade, being from the early 20th century, they still had a complex history I had not originally known. I had to consider what it meant to create with these fragments of a colonial history, and it was not without some ambivalence. Their beauty seduced me in the end, and I realized it was an honor to work with them, a humbling experience to realize they found their way to me, and I have perhaps saved them the dustbin.