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Hebron: The First Bead-making Capital of the World

Do have a favorite type of Trade Bead? While I love the diversity of Venetian Trade Beads, I have to admit that my real weaknessis for Trade Beads of little known or mysterious origin – like Hebron Beads. With their rustic worn aesthetics and tell-tale signs of age, you can't help but be a little curious about the history of these antiquated glass donuts.

Rare Antique Yellow Hebron Beads.

Rare Antique Yellow Hebron Beads.

Hebron is a mystical holy city snuggled among the Judean Mountains in Palestine, famed for being the final resting place of Abraham, his kin and descendants. Hebron's significance as a Holy City has somewhat overshadowed its glass-blowing industry, the roots of which were established during Roman settlement of Palestine in 63 BCE. Although it's unclear when Hebron began producing beads, historical records show that glass-making factories abound from the 12th Century, producing everyday items such as oil lamps and drinking vessels for sale in the street markets.

The earliest known glass beads produced in Hebron were 'eye' beads; spotted, spherical orbs of glass in two or three colors. Aesthetically, they weren't dissimilar to the Skunk Beads produced by the Venetians in the 19th Century, and were considered particularly effective in warding off the 'evil eye'. As trade networks were established between Palestine, Egypt and Africa in the 18th Century,

Hebron's glass-makers began producing a greater variety of beads for use as trade currency. Two specific types – Hersh and Munjir - were mentioned in the 1799 journal of British explorer William George Browne, with further reference to their unusually course finish. It's entirely possible that Hersh and Munjir were early forms of what we now regard to be standard Hebron Trade Beads. Their course texture is of particular note, since glass-makers in Hebron utilized sand from the village of Bani Na'im, and sodium carbonate from the Dead Sea for production. As Palestinian merchants built trade links with Africa, the beads were exported in greater quantities – most notably to West Africa, and Kano, Nigeria. Here, locals adopted them for self-adornment – hence why they're also known as Kano Beads.