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The Ultimate Guide to Glass Trade Beads

Glass trade beads also go by the name slave trade beads. These are mostly found in Africa, but also with some Native Americans and in Latin America. Trade beads were brought to these regions through European traders who used them to ease their passage. They exchanged them for slaves, hence the name, for services, and for goods such as gold, ivory, and palm oil. In Africa, glass trade beads were also made in India and found their way in Africa through Arab traders.

Those who got these beads in Africa placed a lot of value on them because of the high intrinsic value they put on decorative items. They were used to store wealth, to show social status, and as a means of exchange. This was mostly in West Africa. For Native American Indians, glass trade beads were used in ceremonies, to decorate clothing, dolls and baskets, as necklaces and pendants, and as a medium of exchange.

These trade beads are used by archaeologists today as chronological markers. Non-destructive analysis, or INAA, is done on them and it works because the glass’s composition changes with time.

Glass Trade Beads in History

Christopher Columbus and Beads

Christopher Columbus recorded in his log in October 12, 1492 that to get the admiration of the natives of San Salvador Island, he had used a string of glass beads that they put around their necks. This is the first recorded use of trade beads in the larger America. In North America, it is believed that glass trade beads were introduced in 1540 by Coronado and his Spanish conquistadors who were searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. They brought the trade beads as a sign of goodwill with the Indians.

Hudson Bay Trade Beads

It is also believed that Hudson's Bay Company, a fur company formed in 1670, did a lot to introduce trade beads in the region. From the journals of the explorers Lewis and Clark, it is clear that trade beads were used to trade with the Indians. Others who bought these beads to America were the Vikings, Jesuit Priests, and Spanish Explorers. Native American Indians were so receptive to these beads because they had a history of wearing beads. Their beads had been made from wood, antler, bone, shell, copper, and stone.

Origins of Glass Trade Beads

Trade beads were made from different materials and came in different styles depending on where they were made. Most of the glass trade beads were made in the Italian city of Venice, but others were made in Amsterdam, India, China, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, England, France and Spain. Czechoslovakian glass trade beads were particularly popular and they were used by the Dutch West India Company in New York. It is believed that Peter Stuyvesant traded $24 worth beads for Manhattan.

Value of Glass Trade Beads

These trade beads are still in existence, but it is difficult to find beads that are in perfect condition. The older they are, the more expensive they are. Collectors are seeking these beads because their value is increasing by about 10 percent each year. They make great gifts and others are buying them because they are classy but cheaper than gold and diamonds. You can buy glass trade beads online or from the major jewelry stores.