Trade Beads Your #1 source for Trade Beads


The Fascinating History of Cowrie Shell Beads as Legal Tender in Africa

The humble cowrie shell has many connotations and uses in African culture – not least as a form of legal tender up until the early 20th century. Symbolic of both destiny and prosperity, the shell of Cypraeidae molluscs (large sea snails) was considered particularly valuable by tribes in West Africa, whom associate them with various ocean deities associated with wealth and strength. Such was the value of the cowry to Ghanaian tribespeople, they even named their currency (the “cedi”) after these marine molluscs!

Interestingly, cowrie shells are not native to Africa. They are predominantly found in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, most notably around the Maldives and Fiji. According to historians, it's likely that strands of these small, polished 'sea eggs' were introduced to Africa by Chinese merchants sometime around the 9th century, making them one of the earliest types of trade beads to be used as a medium of exchange anywhere in Africa.

The value of the cowrie shell is well documented to have been far greater in West Africa than elsewhere on the continent, and many attribute this to the West Africans' love of beads for self-adornment. Merchant journals from the 19th century suggest that gains for cowrie shells sometimes exceeded 300%! The lucrative trade in cowrie shells during the 1800s led to the development of a recognised currency system of sorts, with around 20-30 strings equating to one dollar. Inland too, the measure of one's wealth was counted in cowrie shells; the then king of Bornu estimated to be worth more than 30,000,000!

Today, the cowrie shell continues to play a central role in the cultures and faiths of many African tribes. Some tribes, such as the Maasai, hang cowrie shells from the bride's wedding necklace to encourage fertility and prosperity, while in rural parts of Ghana, whole strands of shells are gifted to the groom as part of the bride's dowry. But value aside, cowrie shells are a beautiful natural element for tribal inspired jewelry, and in contrast to the 19th century, aren't all that expensive either! 

A Royal African belt decorated with cowrie shells. Quinn Dombrowski/ Flickr

A Royal African belt decorated with cowrie shells. Quinn Dombrowski/ Flickr

Shop Cowrie Shell Beads - 80 Shells per Strand


Bead-Making in Czechoslovakia – A Brief History

Second to China, modern day Czechoslovakia is one of the world's largest producers of glass beads for the commercial market. But, it could have been a very different story had the Communists remained in power.

Glass bead production in Bohemia (now part of central Czechoslovakia) can be traced back to the times of Roman occupation around 400 A.D. From then until the 12th Century, it was largely a cottage industry; glass-makers manufacturing beads to order for Catholic rosaries and door hangings. The 1500s saw the rapid expansion of glass factories within cities such as Stanovsko, Reichenburg and Jablonec, most of which were eager to cash in on the growing demand for glass beads by Spanish, English and Italian merchants.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century saw the invention of numerous machines that enabled bead-makers to produce pressed glass beads on a massive scale, and at far less expense. Such machines also allowed a greater variety of shapes and cuts to be achieved, earning Bohemia an enviable reputation for innovative designs – such as fluorescent Vaseline Beads, produced by mixing Uranium salts with glass.

Mass production of glass beads continued throughout the early 20th Century in North Bohemia, and by 1928, the newly formed Czechoslovakia had superseded Venice as the largest exporter of glass beads in the world. Sadly, this success was short-lived. A combination of events – the Great Depression and World War II – severely impacted the bead-making industry. The Sudeten German bead-makers of North Bohemia were forced to move to Neu Gablonz, within Germany's borders, meaning that many factories in Jablonec closed permanently.

The bead-making industry went into further decline from 1948 when the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Czechoslovakia came to power, forcing the closure of many more factories in Jablonec and Reichenburg. It was only in 1958, following the death of Stalin, that a group of artisans were able to muster enough backing to re-establish the industry. However, they were only able to do so by agreeing to the industry becoming nationalized by the Communist Party. They controlled all aspects of import and export to and from Czechoslovakia for the next forty years until they were ousted in 1989, after which, Czechoslovakia's former cottage industries again began to flourish once more. 

A 19th Century bead factory in Jablonec, Czechoslovakia. Huhulenik/

A 19th Century bead factory in Jablonec, Czechoslovakia. Huhulenik/


Padre Beads – Relics of the Ch’ing Dynasty

Today, China has the monopoly on 21st century bead production. But it wasn't always so. Prior to 1912, the country had little in the way of a bead industry to speak of; its economy largely dominated by farming and agricultural industries. It wasn't until the 17th Century – the beginning of the Quing (or Ch'ing) Dynasty - that glass-makers began to realize the true economic potential of glass bead-making. Up until that point, only a handful of artisans were producing glass for anything other than commercial sale.

Competition among senior members of the royal court was rife in the 17th Century. Both men and women strived to outrank one another in terms of style and extravagant displays of wealth, just so they would be accepted by those in the upper echelons of society. Like jewels and gold, heavy embroidered fabrics were considered trademarks of wealth and aristocracy. Those that couldn't afford expensive diamonds commissioned glass-makers to produce small, wound glass beads known as “Peking beads” to embroider their gowns, starting a trend that would continue for the next 300 years.

As trade networks developed between Europe, America and Asia, the Chinese began to recognize the potential of glass beads for economic gain. They began trading glass beads with tribes across Asia in exchange for exotic fruits, spices, tea and animal pelts; eventually expanding their trade networks to include parts of North America. Realizing the value of glass beads to indigenous tribes, Spanish merchants began exporting beads from China for their own gain. Spanish padres too saw the potential of these small glass beads, and began using them to convert African tribes during Christian missions in Africa – hence the name “Padre Beads!”

Old Navy Blue Padre Beads

Old Navy Blue Padre Beads


The Cultural Significance of Coral Trade Beads in Benin

Coral beads have a unique symbolism to many tribes in Africa, yet few have adopted these beads into their culture quite as literally as the Bini people of Benin. They are customarily worn for both marriage and funeral rites, but also as an indication of social standing and power among clan chiefs.

There are two main types of coral bead identifiable in Benin culture: Ivie and Ekan. Ivie is considered the more precious of the two, and can usually be found in scarlet, rose and medium pink hues. Ekan is more stone-like in appearance with long threads of dark color interspersed with strips of steel gray. The former is considered far more valuable by Edo chiefs owing to its rarity, and also due to the fact it was allegedly stolen from the goddess of the sea by King Oba Ewuare in the 15th Century. It's rather more likely that both types of coral were introduced to Benin by European traders around this period, as the city was, back then, a crossroads for trade between Europe and Africa.

For centuries, the Oba (traditional rulers) of Benin have had strict rules governing the wearing of Ivie and Ekan in Bini culture. Certain shapes are considered rare and valuable, and can only be worn by clan chiefs and spiritual leaders. Historical records show that some chiefs who brought shame upon their clans, or fell out of favor with the Oba, were prohibited by Royal Edict from wearing coral beads completely. There is a well known story in Benin which tells how, in the 1940's, a ruler by the name of Oba Akenzua II seized the ceremonial beaded head-wear and coral beads of Chief Okorotun for his disloyalty to the royal family. Allegedly, the ceremonial garb was sent to his successor – an indication he was to become a chief, by order of the Oba. Had he refused, it would have been considered a treason of sorts. The chief would have become an outcast, and possibly even exiled for his refusal. What a price to pay for refusing a strand of beads!

African-inspired necklace  by Judy Merrill-Smith featuring hand-cut coral beads similar to Ivie.

African-inspired necklace by Judy Merrill-Smith featuring hand-cut coral beads similar to Ivie.


3 Stylish Uses For Kakamba Prosser Beads

Prosser beads are so much more than colorful spacers. With their versatile donut shape, and myriad of two-tone color combinations, they make for beautiful focal beads whether teemed with silver chain, or wire-wrapped glass spheres. Here are a few  examples which show how to incorporate them into contemporary, yet bohemian jewelry pieces.

Asymmetric Polychrome Necklace

This "Congo Kapers" necklace featured on Etsy is a classic example of how old Kakamba Prosser Beads can really give your jewelry that contemporary edge. The white of the Prosser Beads is beautifully accented by milky Howlite, a naturally occurring mineral which serves to further emphasize the marbled effect of these old trade beads. Focal silver spacers break up the a-symmetric design, creating a division between beads old and new.

Congo Kapers Necklace. Jardine Jewellery/ Etsy

Congo Kapers Necklace. Jardine Jewellery/ Etsy

Tassel Earrings

As long as tribal influences are in vogue, tassel earrings will never go out of fashion. To make them a little more visually unique and interesting, create a Prosser bead sandwich simply by threading two beads onto an eye pin, separated by a silver donut spacer in the middle. Then, create the tassels using Masaai seed beads in two colors that match your polychrome Prossers. To finish, simply attach to a fish hook ear-wire. 

Dual Chain Bracelet

Chunky wrist adornments are bang on trend at the moment, and because of their size, Prosser beads make for great focal beads with this particular design. You'll need two matching strips of silver or bronze chain slightly shorter than the circumference of your wrist, coupled with approximately 11-13 Prosser beads in one color. Using eye pins, simply create a ladder of beads between the two chains, leaving a little room at each end for the bolt ring and clasp. This example from The Mad Lila at Etsy gives you an idea of the end result.

Chain and Bead Bracelet. The Mad Lila/ Etsy

Chain and Bead Bracelet. The Mad Lila/ Etsy


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.


The Rise and Decline of Kakamba Prosser Beads

Prosser Beads

Red and Blue Kakamba Prosser Beads

The journey of a bead collector is one filled with ponderings and questions. Where do my Trade Beads come from? Who made them? Even if these tiny details don't mean much to you personally, they can have significant bearing upon your authority and commercial appeal as a jewelry artist.

Kakamba Prosser Beads are one of my most recent discoveries. I actually happened upon them whilst looking for some colorful spacers to use in my jewelry. Early Prosser Beads were named after English brothers Richard and Thomas Prosser, who devised the innovative molding technique for their production in 1840. The rights for this technique were later bought by Jean-Felix Bapterosses, a French button manufacturer who would later found one of the largest bead-producing factories in Europe. Sometime in the 1860s, Prosser Beads came to be known as “Kakamba Prosser Beads”; named after a small town in The Republic of the Congo where they were traded by merchants.

According to trade records, Africa was one of the chief markets for Prosser Beads. European traders would use them to build rapports with tribal chiefs, thus ensuring safe passage through unexplored or unknown regions. However, these merchants were shrewd types, and weren't averse to conning tribespeople in order to get what they wanted. Beads were often strung upon weak cord, which would break easily. Natives were also told it was bad luck to pick them up, thus creating a need for new beads in exchange for small favors.

Prosser Beads continued to be produced in Europe long after the death of Jean-Felix Bapterosses in 1885, however, largely fell out of favor as more elaborate beads were introduced to Africa in the early 1900s. Their sad decline in popularity eventually relegated them to the history books by the mid 20th Century – until locals in Kakamba began finding hoards of them in the ground while farming.

To think that the beads I hold today once traveled 3,000 miles from Europe to the Congo is amazing, but more fascinating still is the fact they may once have adorned the neck of a great tribal chief all those years ago. A slice of history being recycled once more for self adornment!


Mythical or Medicinal? The Alleged Properties of Skunk Trade Beads

Skunk Beads, (often referred to as 'Eye Beads' due to the intricacy of some


Antique Skunk Eye Beads, Red.

spot designs) are a product of  18th Century Venetian manufacturing. Created using the wound, or drawn glass production method; Skunk Beads represent one of the earliest forms of 'lampwork', a process which involves the addition of small glass globules to a set surface, giving the 3-D raised effect.

Collectors of Venetian trade beads are often in the dark about why Skunk Beads are so named. It is thought the name actually derives from the similarities of the bead design to the coat of the North and Central American Skunk species 'spilogale'. Unlike the native Striped Skunk, the spotted variety are considerably smaller, often with very intricately detailed coats.

Of the many hues of Skunk Beads that have been produced, purists believe that only the black and white variety are true Skunk Beads. The highly collectible red variant were originally known as 'Cornaline d'Aleppo', so named after the Aleppo Stone ('Eye Stone') thought to originate within Syria.

It is possibly from the mythical properties of the Aleppo Stone, that the powers of Skunk Beads for holistic healing have evolved. The agate Aleppo Stone is alleged to be a cure for a prominent Mediterranean skin disease known as the 'Aleppo Boil' or 'Biskara Boil'. The skin condition usually affects the face, and eventually becomes a pus-filled ulcer if left untreated. Carriage or wearing of the spotted Aleppo Stone is thought to rid carriers of the disease, and act as prevention from it.

So too, Skunk Beads are attributed with similar healing powers, despite being made from glass. This could stem from the beliefs of certain African tribes that spirits are omni-present, particularly within beads that are 'of the Earth'. Glass is typically produced from silica and sand, along with several other natural compounds, therefore glass beads are considered 'of the Earth'. Whether or not Venetian Skunk Beads possess holistic benefits; they are still considered some of the most beautiful and collectible of all African trade beads!


Vaseline Trade Beads: A Radioactive Discovery?

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


Yellow Vaseline Beads

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.


A Buyers Guide To Mali Trade Beads – What To Look For, What To Avoid


Large Mali Wedding Beads

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!