Aja beads were historically made in Venice in the early 20th century, from drawn glass tubes which were cooled and cut into small slices. Once cut, the slices of drawn cane were thereafter exposed to heat until the glass softened or slumped. This caused the beads to flatten and their hard cut edges to soften and become rounded. Experts speculate that the process of slumping was in actual fact carried out in Africa as there is no evidence of the slumped slices ever being sold in Venice. Aja beads range in size, color and canes with the most spectacular being crafted from Rosetta or chevron cane. These beautiful and somewhat unusual beads are today used to craft exquisite jewelry pieces such as those featuring 4-layer “yellow jacket” slices.
African trade beads came about as a result of the need for traders along the route between Europe and Africa for a currency to trade with the Africans. Beads fitted here as the most appropriate medium of exchange due to the affinity that African people had for various types of beads. The trade beads were therefore used for purposes of battering goods of value from the peoples of Africa such as ivory, gold, and palm oil.
The history of African trade beads dates as far back as the fifteenth century with the coming of the Portuguese. Upon arrival in West Africa, the Portuguese discovered just how important beads were to the African people. The beads they found were crafted out of various objects and materials including gold, iron, ivory, organic objects and bone. At the same time, the Portuguese discovered that the resources that the European market was desperate for were in abundance in Africa. The traders therefore decided to use glass beads as a medium in bartering for goods and raw materials with the Africans.
Glass beads were particularly singled out because glass working technology had not yet been discovered in Africa. Therefore, the African people were in awe of the exquisite beads of glass that the European traders had to offer. Because these beads were also used in bartering slaves, they were to later earn the name “slave beads” or aggry beads. Europe responded to the popularity and increased demand for African trade beads by increasing production in cities such as Venice which is today still famous for its unique and rare glass beads.
How to Craft Glass Beads
- First, wash the bottles and other glass items to be used, and then sort by color. Break these down into small fragments to be used for the translucent ones. Alternatively, pound them with a metal mortar and pestle, and then sieve to obtain a very fine powder to make the powder glass ones. Use ceramic dyes to create different colored glass powder.
- Next, place the powder in clay bead moulds coated with kaolin to prevent the fused glass from sticking to the surface. Put cassava stalks into the moulds containing colored glass powder. These stalks will burn during the fusion and leave holes to allow for threading.
- Cook the beads in a traditional kiln made from termite clay. Translucent ones cook for 35-45 minutes at 850-1000 deg. Celsius; while powder glass ones cook for 20-30 minutes at 650-850 deg. Celsius. Cook the painted ones twice – the second time in order to fix the paste of colored glass powder used to decorate them.
- Once the translucent ones are removed from the kiln, make a center hole using an awl. One awl will maintain the mould in place, while the other will turn the bead around in the mould to shape it. In the meantime, the fused glass will slowly harden at room temperature.
- Leave the beads to slowly cool in the moulds for about one hour to prevent them from cracking. Take them out of the mould, and then wash and polish them by vigorously rubbing them with sand and water on a smooth stone surface.
To clean most African beads use a small amount of Mineral Oil (found at your local grocers) on a clean cloth and rub. Not recommended for old or Antique beads as their dirt is well earned and adds to their history.
Cleaning agents such as soap are not advised.