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The Origins of Trade Beads

Archeologists have proven that beads were around almost 40,000 years ago. So where exactly did they originate from and what were they used for?

The earliest recording of glass beads in the Americas was made by explorers. Spanish explorers carried glass beads with them to conduct trade with the Native Americans. The prices with which the beads were used to trade depended on the location where the beads were being traded as well as the demand for that particular bead.

As stated earlier, beads have been around for over 40,000 years and they have been made by every culture since then. Glass beads were being made in Egypt and Lebanon as far as 1365 B.C. archeological sites have also proven the presence of bead factories in countries such as China.

Before European influence came to the Americas, North American beads were initially made from bones, jade blue-green stone turquoise as well as gold. Venice in Italy is thought to be the major source of glass beads that were later used for trade. The people of Venice held a monopoly of the bead that span for over 600 years. There even existed a guild of Venetian glass makers. In 1291, a majority of the glass making industry were shifted to a small island known as Murano in North Venice for fear that a factory fire would burn down the entire city.

Beads were thereafter produced in Murano for over 200 years by making use of two methods referred to as “winding” and blown glass beads. Demand for beads was met by making use of these two methods of production. The Europeans that started sending ships throughout the world they would take beads made of glass, porcelain and metal with them. They used them both as gifts and as a means of trade in the areas where they landed.

China is also thought to be a source of glass beads for trade. Beads from China made their way to Mexico by way of the Spaniards who went there to trade via the trade route that linked Acapulco, Manila and Chinese ports. From Mexico, the beads made their way to the Americas.

In India, beads were made by women out of seeds, crow beads and pony. These beads were used to male clothing and were carried to the Americas by the early explorers. Since the early days, beads have been a common sight in jewelry, clothing and many other items. It is astonishing to think that they have been around for so many centuries.