Tomato beads are a type of seed bead that was commonly used during the African slave trade in past centuries. Originating from Venice where they were manufactured, tomato beads are large and slightly translucent. They have an irregular rounded shape and may appear in brilliant shades of red and yellow. Largely traded in Ethiopia, tomato beads get their name from their tomato-like shape and served as one of the earliest forms of trade currency in this region. A high intrinsic value was placed on tomato beads as the people of this region, just as everywhere else in Africa, truly valued decorative items such as beads.
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.
Dutch Dogon beads are large wound glass beads which get their name from the fact that they were made by Dutch people in the Netherlands and later became popular with the Dogon people of Mali who couldn’t resist their exquisite beauty. Believed to date back as far as the 17th century, these beads were often used in Dutch villages to make garden mosaics, instead of having flowers in the formal gardens during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This was before they found their way to the shores of West Africa to make jewelry for the Dogon people. Popular colors for Dutch Dogon beads are most often blue but can also be back black, white or brown.
Button beads are small glass beads which resemble modern buttons, although they do not have a group of central holes. These beads date back to the Etruscan period and the time of the Roman Empire, but later found their way to Syria and Egypt. Button beads are generally very beautiful and boast artistic workmanship. Today as in the past, button beads are used to make exquisite necklaces using these beads entirely, some of which may be cemented together two and two in order to form a single bead. Button beads take on various shapes including circular, flat, oval, plane, convex or convex-concave shapes.
The style of White Heart beads was invented around the year 1480, whereby red glass was colored using actual gold. Naturally, because of its value, the gold had to be used sparingly by the bead makers. As such, they instead opted to use cheap color filler for the core of the bead with the red only forming the outer layer. During the years 1480 – 1830, bead makers began using green color to craft these beads. However, after 1830 both yellow and white were commonly used, along with a translucent red coat. After 1860, bead makers stopped using yellow altogether in making White Heart beads and exclusively opted for white color.
Kiffa beads are rare powder glass beads which acquired their name from Kiffa, a city in Mauritania where they were first documented by French ethnologist R. Mauny in 1949. Kiffa beads represent one of the highest levels of bead making skill, artistry and ingenuity due to the fact that they were created using the simplest tools and materials available, and in open fires. These materials included pulverized European glass beads or their fragments, bottle glass, tin cans, pottery shards, steel needles and some gum Arabic. Decorations for the beads were made from the glass slurry – the crushed glass mixed with a binder and then applied using a pointed tool such as a steel needle. The beads were then placed in small containers such as sardine cans and thereafter heated to fuse them in an open fire, without the need for molds.
Skunk beads are beautiful wound and decorated African trade beads which create great strands of jewelry items. Originally made in Venice, these beads were commonly used for trading purposes in Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Skunk beads are a must have for every collector worth their salt and today grace many private collections around the world. Because of the increasing popularity of skunk beads amongst bead lovers today, African bead traders now have to go deeper into Africa to find more of these skunk beads which are becoming rarer with each passing decade – which of course makes them even more collectable.
Watermelon beads are a type of glass beads that was commonly used for trading purposes in West Africa, especially during the centuries preceding the ban on slavery. These beautiful African trade beads were a form of currency and were molded in layers ranging from 2 to 6. Watermelon beads were thin and handmade, thus giving each bead a unique characteristic. The top layer of the beads was green and shaped like a watermelon, thus denoting the watermelon in their name. However, watermelon beads are today also available in striped colors. These beads were of great value in African traditional culture as they were an indicator of rank, age, wealth and social status and today, they are becoming increasingly valuable as well.
Originally made using salts from the Dead Sea, Hebron beads date back to earlier than the mid-19th century. Hebron beads – also referred to as “Kano beads”, are commonly found in a dull yellow color, although they also appear in various shades of green and blue, although rare. These beads are a favorite amongst antique bead collectors who cherish them for their rich history which saw them travel from Egypt, along the Nile, into the Sudan and even as far as Ghana to adorn the bodies of West African royalty. Their craftsmanship involves their being wound straight in furnace to produce a shining glass bead. The larger of the Hebron beads are referred to as Mongur, while the smaller ones go by the name Harish.
For the last three centuries, the bohemian bead industry has thrived under the guidance of expert stone cutters who have continued to work with bright red garnets in and around the bohemian village of Turnov in today’s Czech Republic. This tradition of fine bead making is today evident from the great collections of both old and new glass bohemian beads available on the market today. Historically, the unique styles of the translucent red glass made these beads some of the most popular African trade beads which were used by European seafaring merchants to trade for slaves, ivory and other goods with African rulers in the centuries past.