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King Beads: The Mark of African Royalty

"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!