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History of Trade Beads

The earliest known beads were made from materials such as bone, teeth, ivory, seeds, wood, stone, and resins from a variety of insects and plants. The purpose of the first beads worn is believed to have been protection against uncontrollable events such as harsh weather, to enhance beauty, and as a show of status in the society.

People started using trade beads when trade routes were established and there was a need for currency. However, most of the trade beads in the market today were used even while there were other currencies. These were used by Europeans to trade with people who did not know about currency such as Africans and Native American Indians.

In Africa, trade beads were used in West Africa by Europeans who got them from Venice, Holland, and Bohemia. They used millions of beads to trade with Africans for slaves, services, and goods such as palm oil, gold, and ivory. The trade with Africans was so vital that some of the beads were made specifically for Africans. These include Millefiori trade beads, Chevron trade beads, striped melons trade beads, feather trade beads, and eye beads. Other trade beads reached Africa from India through Arab Traders. The Venetians dominated production of trade beads, especially those used in Africa.

The trade was successful because Africans placed a lot of intrinsic value on decorative items. They used these beads as a currency, as a measure of wealth, as a store of wealth, as decorative items, and to show status in the society. Trade beads used in Africa also go by the name slave beads because they were exchanged for slaves. This was between the sixteenth and the twentieth century.

The first recorded case of use of Trade beads in America is by Christopher Columbus who wrote in his log on October 12, 1492 that he had given San Salvador natives glass trade beads to impress them. Native American Indians had used beads in the past and so they readily accepted trade beads from the European in exchange for fur, horse, and other items. Native American Indians used these beads to decorate their clothes and their baskets, to trade within themselves, and to beautify themselves.

Trade beads were made from different materials and in different styles and colors, depending on who was commissioning them. Glass was the most commonly used material. Apart from the United States and Africa, trade beads are also found in Canada and Latin America.

The beginning of today’s trade in trade beads can be traced in the late 60's to early 70's. This was when global travel took root and many young people went to exotic places and brought back treasures such as beads. Some of these ‘hippies’ began importing beads and other ornaments to their countries. Once the beads were popularized, people researched on them to get the original trade beads and these are very expensive today. African traders brought large quantities of these beads to the west when they grew in popularity.

Many people are making trade beads that mimic the original trade beads. To get the genuine beads, do not expect flawlessness, buy from an established online or offline jewelry store, and consult a professional jeweler before making a purchase.