African Beads and Friends of Bonou

For several years, one of our most successful fund-raising endeavours has been selling beaded necklaces in British markets, craft fairs, church halls and private events. This has yielded thousands of pounds! Laurence buys the beads in the market in Cotonou or with the bead-makers in Ghana, bring them back in her luggage, 20 or 30 Kilos at a time and makes up the necklaces here.

Modern beads in the market in Ghana.

These beads are made by hand and are incredibly varied in colour, shape and texture and our necklaces reflect this variety and are undoubtedly several notches up the cheap plastic beads made in China that are currently the rage! These glass beads are modern imitations of the old "trade beads" (see below) that arrived by their millions on the shores of West Africa for centuries. The modern African beads are made from recycled glass, which is either collected in the form of used bottles (wine, beer, soda, spirits, etc.) or purchased as sheets of glass from windows, etc. This is followed by a long and quite complicated process (see below).

Beads have always been an integral part of all African societies: adornment with beads was (and still is) an expression of cultural values in a symbolic language and shows rank and artistic aptitudes (see next section).

The Cultural Significance of Beads in West Africa.

There is no gender boundary in the realm of beads: Both men and women wear beads as in African societies, beads are an expression of cultural values in a symbolic language. More precisely beads give 3 “messages”: Adornment, Magical/medicinal powers, and Status and Wealth

Adornment: Anybody who has ever been to Africa can testify of the high intrinsic value African people put upon decorative items and on wonderfully bright colours! So adornment IS the primary use of beads throughout the continent. As an item of beauty and craftsmanship, beads transfer their essence to the wearer. And because adornment is often linked to romance, beads play a significant role in attracting members of the opposite sex. In West Africa beads play a role in lovemaking as well: The very small beads that are worn beneath a woman's skirts are considered erotic and are often fondled by both parties before and during the sexual act. It is called a "démarreur" in French (a "starter") and is seldom (if ever) removed, not even during bathing. Men swear oaths on them and a woman might be considered an adulteress for even describing them to another man!

Rows of "waist necklaces" in the market in Ghana

Magical Powers: All across West Africa, beads have long held a sacred place in animist religions. Basically the animist believes that inanimate objects, whether created by nature or man, have spiritual force. The voodoo priesthoods of Benin, Togo and Ghana use beads in rituals and they are often left at shrines as offerings to the gods. It is forbidden to touch beads worn by a priestess or the Queen Mother of a royal family.

Status and Wealth: In Yoruba tradition (Nigeria) strands of beads are the emblems of the gods. In addition to geometrical designs, royal clothes often feature beaded representations of ancestors and creatures who facilitate communication with the spirit world. In Ghana, young girls from the Krobo region wear many pounds of ancestral beads designed to show her family's wealth, especially during the Dipo festival where they display themselves and dance wearing vast numbers of beads on arms, legs, neck and waist to celebrate their coming of age and show the wealth of their family. To this day beads and cowrie shells are still official currency for dowry bride price among the rural peoples of north-east Côte d'Ivoire, southern Burkina Faso and north-western Ghana.

The Trade Beads

From the 16th throughout to the 19th century, European glass-makers mass-produced huge quantities of beads as during this whole period, most explorers, traders and missionaries carried glass beads with them as gifts or objects of barter. The Europeans knew that in Africa beads were extremely sought after and a lively bead trade existed already in most regions of Africa and European traders were able to identify local tastes and to respond with appropriate variety. The beads made in Europe were then transported to West Africa by the traders in their sailing ships, to be used as currency to purchase gold, ivory, palm oil and even slaves. So the term "Trade Beads" typically applies to beads made predominately in Venice and Bohemia and, to a lesser extent, in other European countries from the late 1400s through to the early 1900s and traded in Africa and the Americas. The heyday of this "trade" period was from the mid 1800s through to the early 1900s when literally millions of these beads were produced and traded in Africa.

The Venetians dominated this market and produced the majority of the beads sold during this time. The importance of the Venetian bead industry during the Renaissance was really considerable: At one time there were more than 250 separate firms making beads in Venice and by the 18th century, the output of the Republic’s factories was more than twenty tons of finished beads PER WEEK! Of course there was a good reason for that: the beauty of Venetian beads was unrivalled and their role in European fashion undiminished. The Venetians fought for centuries to keep their techniques secret, exerting draconian penalties to try and prevent glass makers from leaving and setting up shop elsewhere. But monopolies cannot last forever and many other countries tried to develop their own glass bead industries. Today the Chinese are getting in on the global act and their ancient traditions and skills in glass bead-making are increasingly exploited in the international marketplace.

Old Chevron Beads

Old Millefiori Beads

These beads were therefore made, not in Africa, but in Venice; yet such was their value as a trading currency in Africa that they found a permanent home in Africa for centuries…. Beads were part of the complex trading cycle, the famous... or rather infamous "Triangular Trade": Rum, cloth guns and beads going from Europe to Africa, then slaves from Africa to the new World and finally sugar, tobacco, silver and gold bullions from the new world to Europe. After the first World War till the early 50’s these antique Trade Beads just stayed where they were, among African families but were totally forgotten by Europeans, until some clever black American women came to Africa and especially to Ghana to "connect" with their slave roots and among many things "re-discovered" the old beads. So their popularity was revived in the North in the late 1960s when they began to be exported from Africa into the United States and Europe. Besides the old names of "Millefiori" and "Chevron" which remains, trade beads are also named by their origins like "Akoso" beads which are held in the highest esteem and usually only worn for celebrations and funerals and occasionally buried with the dead. The Krobo People of Ghana continues nowadays to make new powder glass beads in the style of the old powder glass "Akoso" beads.

How Glass Beads Are Made

Traditional glass bead-making in West Africa is concentrated essentially in Ghana among the Krobo, in Togo among the Ewe and in Nigeria among the Nupe. There are 3 different types of glass beads: transparent recycled glass-beads, powder glass beads, painted glass beads and techniques differ slightly.

Making the moulds:
Balls of pounded clay are flattened and cut to the right circumference using a pot lid for a template. Size and thickness depends on the size and style of the bead being made and deep imprints are made to put a certain quantity of glass which will make the bead.

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Making the mould in clay

For powder glass beads, wooden templates are used to show the depth of the bead. The small point on the end makes the deeper hole where the cassava stalk sits. The cassava stalk will burn out in the firing to leave a hole in the bead. Moulds are made in a great variety of shapes and sizes. After the moulds dry, they are baked in the kiln.

baked moulds just out of the kiln

Preparing the glass:
For powder glass beads you need …powdered glass! The glass is pounded to a fine powder using a pipe with a metal bottom welded on. An iron rod is used as the pestle. After pounding the glass is sifted to remove any larger pieces. Only a very fine powder is used. Different coloured dyes are added to the powder.

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Powder glass

The recycled glass is crushed by hand! Unlike with the powder glass beads, dyes and colours cannot be added so the glass used must be the right colour for the resulting bead. The resulting crushed glass mixture is called "fritt". But for recycled glass beads the glass does not have to be crushed to a fine powder. Some larger pieces can be left as they melt down during the baking process.

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Crushing the "fritt"

Filling the moulds:
For both types of glass beads, before the mould is filled, it is dipped in a fine solution of kaolin, clay and water. This coats the mould and acts as a release.

Kaolin ball soaking

For the powder glass beads, cassava stalks are put in the centre of each hole in the mould and the powdered glass is carefully put into the hole around the stalk. The cassava stalk will burn in the kiln and leave a hole. These beads are the most time intensive because they require the artisan to scoop tiny amount of powder glass and design the bead within the mould before firing with powder ceramic dyes mixed with the powder glass so that the design is baked into the bead.

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Mould filled with powder glass with a piece of cassava stalk in the middle.

One colour will make a plain bead. Different colours in layers make striped beads: Think of the sand pictures in bottles and you will get the idea.

For the recycled glass beads, the fritt is put to fill the moulds and the beads will be shaped after being fired.

Firing in the kiln: the techniques differ between the powder glass beads and the recycled glass beads
For the powder glass beads:
The temperature of the kiln does not have to be so high for powder glass as the powder fuses together rather than melts. The temperature of the kiln is judged by the colour of the flame. Firing is a highly skilled job. So the filled moulds are put into the kiln to bake. This process takes between 20 minutes to three quarters of an hour depending on the temperature of the kiln and the size of the bead being made.


For the recycled glass
The kiln has to be hotter than for the powder glass in order to melt down the lumps of glass in the fritt. From experience the bead makers know the right temperature and how long to leave the moulds in the kiln to achieve the right degree of melting. When the right temperature has been reached the bead maker takes out the mould. He uses two awls - one to hold down the mould and the other to shape bead. He spins the gather of glass round to shape it and then flips it over to shape the other side. This is highly skilled work which has to be done quickly before the glass cools.

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The recycled glass beads being moulded.

Painted beads
Painted beads follow the same general production process as the powder glass but after the first firing are painted (hence the name!) they are allowed to dry, painted and then fired again. They can have 2 shapes: The individual round ones or a tube of glass which is cut in bits forming rectangular beads.

Round painted beads
"Tube" of rectangular beads

The last touches:
When the beads come out of the mould they have rough edges and there are traces of the kaolin which stopped them sticking in the mould. So they have to be washed first and then they are polished on a stone using sand and water. This grinds down the rough edges and removes the kaolin.

Polishing the beads

Then they are oiled to bring out their natural shine. Some people use a light grade of machine oil or cooking oil. Beads are strung on cotton thread. Mostly the beads are strung into a pair of bracelets. Women usually do this work. It is traditional among the Krobo people that men make the beads and women string and sell them.

And then off to the market!
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