"King Beads", so named because of their popularity among tribal leaders during the trade era, are a type of marvered glass bead made in Murano, Italy, during the 19th Century. The earliest known examples of King Beads date back to the mid 1800s, examples of which can still be seen among the Moses Lewin Levin sample bead card collections held at the British Museum, London.
Characterised by their distinctive bicone shape and bold stripes, King Beads were typically larger than striped Chevrons, and were solely intended for use as a trade currency between merchants and African tribes. But, although Venetian King Beads run the gamut of color variations, the most common are green with yellow, red and black stripes. It is thought that such combinations were produced to enhance the appeal of the beads in Africa. Certain tribes, such as the Krobo of Ghana, are renowned for their use of colored beads as a medium of communication, and consider some combinations to be more desirable than others.
Legend has it that the size and specific colors of King Beads was inherent to their popularity among tribal chiefs in the 19th Century. The Anlo Ewe of Benin and Togo regarded these larger beads as being superior to other types of trade beads, and quickly adopted them as wearable symbols of status. Yellow King Beads became central to the Dipo initiation ceremonies in Krobo culture, since the color is associated with coming of age and future prosperity. Interestingly, a number of archeological excavations in Ghana have revealed that some royals were even buried with their King Beads – possibly to aid their prosperity in the afterlife!
We are proud to share with you the most comprehensive background on those beautiful beads known as Vaseline trade beads.
The 'radioactive era' as some refer to it was a period between the early
1900's, up to 1930 when a number of distinctive discoveries and advancements influenced an obsession with all things 'radioactive'. It was German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth who first discovered Uranium in 1789, however later revelations from French physicist Antoine Becquerel in 1896 proved that Klaproth had not isolated the metallic element - which we now know influences color under ultraviolet light.
Marie and Pierre Curie's work superseded these scientific announcements with the pioneering discovery of Radium in 1898. Interestingly, Marie Curie's work which extended to developing x-ray technology and radiography, won her two Nobel Prize Awards. Her work assisted in helping the treatment of soldiers during World War I, which is probably why she was also the first prize winner to be award two consecutive prizes, for two different types of work - chemistry and physics.
The trend for radioactive chemicals being used for decorative and everyday objects began around 1905. Everything from blown glass vases, to clock-faces, earthenware, pottery and Vaseline Beads were being made with the fluorescing properties of Uranium. Uranium influences an intense yellow-green, or violent green depending upon the kind of light it is subjected to, and appears to glow immensely in ultraviolet light.
Prior to the official discovery of Uranium as an isolated element, the compound was already being used (it is thought) within the production of glass trade beads. Several collections of faceted Vaseline Beads have been discovered, and are thought to date back to the 1830's - all feature the yellow-green characteristics attributed to the Vaseline Beads of the early 1900's. Vaseline Beads are often regarded as a product of Africa, however were first produced within Bohemia - now Czechoslovakia.
The fascination with radioactivity between 1905 and 1915 prompted a period of mass production for Vaseline Trade Beads, and not just within Bohemia. Several other countries, including England and Italy were also caught up with the fascinating properties Uranium salts influenced. Interestingly, it was only a concentration of 1-2% Uranium salts to a glass mold that would offset the chemical reaction that produces the green-yellow aesthetic.
Authentic Vaseline Beads produced around the late 1800's/ early 1900's are distinct due to their shape. Rondelles and discs were by far the most common shapes, however it is not unusual to uncover some with cut facets. Later replicas of Vaseline Beads were produced without Uranium (since later science also uncovered the possible harmful effects of radiation), and can be found in multiple hues. The Uranium was replaced with oxides or dyes during the molding process, and manual manipulation used to replicate the fluorescing qualities of Uranium.
Speckled, marbled, bulbous or triangular. Regardless of their shape, color, size or opalescence, there's no denying that Mali Wedding Beads are some of the most spectacular of African origin. From the simple way they refract and reflect light, to the way they hang when strung as a 'bouquet' for a focal necklace center-piece, Mali Wedding Beads exude a beauty and mystique that often belies their archaic history.
With the surge in popularity of auction sites as a primary means of retail, there has also been a ten-fold increase in the quantity of African beads being sold through these mediums. Mali Wedding Beads, along with Venetian Trade Beads, and African Chevrons comprise some of the most sought-after African bead variants, yet shopping for the 'real deal' has become a lot more challenging.
Why is it so difficult to source genuine Mali Beads?
The primary factor that has led to many questioning the authenticity of Mali Beads (that are not sold through accredited wholesalers and dealers), is the production of replicas and reproductions by both Middle Eastern and Western entities. Mali Wedding Beads can often command quite high prices, particularly if sufficient evidence accompanies them to prove they are of pre-1900 origin, and modern techniques are such, that it can be almost impossible to distinguish a reproduction from a true authentic bead.
Signs of Authenticity
If you've been an avid collector of African trade beads for a while, you will more than likely be familiar with the quality, weight and appearance of such old beads. African trade beads tend to have survived over a Century of exchange, travel, wear and tear to end up with the supplier selling them onto you. As a result, their general appearance, texture, and even structure may have suffered from such long life - characteristics loved by the people that collect them, and often what influences their high value in some cases. Other things to look for, or beware of include:
- Obvious Seams: It's generally very rare to come across Mali Wedding Beads that bear a pronounced or obvious seam. Part of their allure is the inherently smooth, glossy finish. If the Mali Beads you're looking at appear to have a prominent ridge from the bulb to the tip, chances are it is a modern reproduction.
- Threading Holes: Sounds daft doesn't it. Surely any bead should bear a threading hole, given their primary purpose is decorative. You'd be surprised at just how many 'replicas' are sold on a daily basis that do not feature this trademark Mali Bead characteristic! Old Mali Beads always bear a vertical threading hole at the 'head' of the bead (the part narrower than the bulb.) Modern variants are produced with a metal pendant fish-eye attachment or something similar, so that the bead can be used as a single pendant.
- Quantity: Authentic African trade beads are always sold by the string upon which they were sourced, by wholesalers committed to protecting the quality and authenticity of such beads. Such beads are often discovered in this state, and will have remained like this since they were first strung a hundred or so years ago. Sellers who break down African trade beads are usually those selling them on auction sites, out to make a quick profit with little regard for the authenticity, and historic relevance of keeping beads together.
- Number in Stock: Authentic trade bead retailers will usually be happy to inform you of the likelihood of certain beads coming back into stock, as well as their sources of stock. An extremely high number of 'bead strings' being sold through an independent dealer (particularly through marketplaces or auction sites) is indicative that they may not be genuine. Accredited dealers rarely have surplus. In fact, they tend to sell out of their authentic wares within days of it's arrival. Due to sourcing direct from Africa, it may also be a wait before such stock reappears upon their store catalog.
Other than the above, you should expect real Mali Wedding Beads to feature signs of wear and age. They may appear dirty, pitted, scratched, worn and even sun-bleached in some cases - all characteristics that indicate age, wear and extensive travel from one person to another. When your Mali Beads arrive, don't be disappointed to find them in such condition - it's part and parcel of their history, genuine character, and most importantly authenticity!
Many of my fellow jewelers and craftsmen/women often ask about my obsession with trade beads. I use them in nearly every piece of jewelry I create, so it leads many to wonder, what is the significance of trade beads? Why use trade beads? Well, here are my top reasons for using trade beads in my jewelery.
Trade Beads are handmade, and made with love.
Unlike most of the beads in the market today, primarily dominated by Indian and Chinese beads, trade beads are each made by hand, with love, the old fashioned way. It feels nice knowing you are wearing something that was not made by a machine or robot, but rather, by a fellow human
Each bead is one of a kind.
Because trade beads are handmade, every single bead is unique and one of a kind. There are no two beads that are exactly the same! This is particularly noticeable when shopping for Millefiori beads and Venetian trade beads.
Wearing trade beads is like wearing a piece of history.
Trade beads date back as some of the oldest beads in modern history. Most trade beads have traveled at least three continents, and have been possessed by multiple owners, especially old trade beads. There's nothing like wearing a piece of history!
Shopping for trade beads is fun!
Shopping for trade beads is unlike shopping for most of other types of beads. Because every bead is handmade and one of a kind, shopping never gets old. You never see the same thing twice.
Trade beads are usually part of the fair trade.
Most trade beads are considered "fair trade beads", meaning the craftsmen, craftswomen, and artisans involved in creating the beads were not exploited in the process of bringing these beads to you. They are paid the amount they deserve. You know that when you purchase fair trade beads, you are helping to improve the lives of the people who made these beads for you.
Of course, these are only five of the many reasons why I love to use trade beads when creating jewelry. Their significance is unprecedented, and they are the most cultured of beads.
Why do you use trade beads in your jewelry? Post a comment below and share!
Hello, and welcome to TradeBeads.org, the newest blog on trade beads. I've started this blog because of my deep passion and interest in trade beads. I've collected trade beads for many decades, and have finally decided to share my knowledge and experience with the world on this blog.
I will be writing about African trade beads, Venetian trade beads, Chevron trade beads, Millefiori trade beads, and much more. Please check back regularly, and leave comments .