East Africa had contact with India, Egypt, West Asia, and even China, long before other parts of Africa did. The earliest written evidence we have about East Africa comes from a Roman guidebook for sailors, the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, written in Greek around 50A.D.
Many old beads were made in Europe and India and transported to West Africa initially by Arab traders on overland routes from North Africa. Around 500 years ago, European traders arrived by sea in their sailing ships.
The beads were used as currency to purchase gold and furs from Central Africa, ivory and palm oil along the routes from Europe to West Africa, and then onto the West Indies for produce from the plantations. The African ports bought not only glass beads but Chinese porcelain and cotton cloths as well.
GHANAIAN POWDER BEADS AND GHASSI BEADS
Made by the Krobo tribe in Ghana, the local name for these beads is Mue-ne-angma or Ghassi, which means “Writing Beads”. Using techniques over 100 years old, their varied decorations are painted using glass paste and then fired in a process similar to enamelling.
First produced in Venice, Italy in the late 15th century, these beads were considered by many in Africa to be the most highly prized of all. They were worn by chiefs and wealthy village elders, many of whom were buried wearing their finery. In time, natural earth movements can bring these beautiful beads to the surface, giving rise to the widely held African legend that they grow from the soil.
The beads were produced by fusing various layers of different coloured glasses, which were then shaped and ground into many varied and interesting patterns. They are one of the great favourites of bead collectors’ worldwide with early examples being scarce and more valuable as time goes by. The equally valuable new Chevron beads from West Africa reflect this same process, as the value of the old Chevron beads continues to increase.
WEST AFRICAN BRASS BEADS
Brass Beads were made with the lost wax method by the Boule tribe, prolific producers of brass ornaments and charms. Mainly found in the Côte d’Ivoire, (Ivory Coast), the Boules are original descendants of the Ashanti tribes of Ghana. Some of the pieces produced are the Boule Bronze Masks and Solberas. Certain brass beads like Mubi brass comes from Nigeria.
These shells were ancient forms of money used not just in Africa, but throughout the world, predating the use of coins, or in some instances, used in the same economy as metal coins.
ANTIQUE PRAYER NECKLACES
These necklaces are made from unique combinations of materials including beautiful strands of Yemeni black coral, silver decorations, multi-coloured tassels, 1800s glass, ancient stone, and “Amber” beads. The ones with the silk tassels are normally worn by Griotes, which are professional singers and storytellers and are considered the “historians of the deserts”.
Sometimes they were worn by dancers of the Guedra, a ritual Dance of Love, performed by the Moorish women for the benefit of their menfolk.
WELEGA OR ETHIOPIAN ANTIQUE COPTIC CROSS
Coptic crosses are worn by Ethiopian Christians as symbols of their faith and are often given as baptismal presents. With designs usually specific to the towns or provinces where they were made, they reflect a variety of historical influences including Greek, Latin, Egyptian and Celtic. They are traditionally cast using the lost wax method or cut from Maria Theresa Talers and other silver coins.
RECYCLED GLASS BEADS
These are created from the process of recycling glass and producing all sorts of different colours, from frosted to clear. The West African glass beads are extensively used in jewellery today.
Amber is a soft, gluey resin found anywhere resin producing trees occur. This mineral, organic compound is estimated to be between 60 and 70 million years old. When fresh, this sticky substance attracted and held any plant and insect matter present. As time passed, the resin hardened into its current, beautiful form. The older the amber, the more value it is said to have.
Natural amber occurs as irregular nodules, rods or drops like shapes in all shades from yellow to yellowish-brown, black to blue, red to a light golden brown, often containing inclusions that add to the unique quality of each piece. Some types are considered very old and are becoming difficult to find which makes them increasingly valuable and highly collectable. Old amber from Yemen is a buttery yellow to red, is extremely rare and fetches high prices today. The old dark red ambers called Bembe, are found in Nigeria.
Due to its rarity, many imitations very similar to the original were produced within Africa, which was termed “African Amber” or “Bakelite”. Most “African Amber” is not the true European (Baltic) fossilized resin amber, but a complicated mixture of fossilized and synthetic resins. Developed in the early 20th century, it’s been traded with many Middle Eastern, African, and Asian cultures.
New “African Amber” is a mixture of resin and copal and is also known as” imitation amber”. Copal is also a natural resin, but since it is still relatively young, it cannot truly be classified as amber yet. It is a bit stickier and softer than true amber, but given enough time, it will age into its older, more valuable counterpart. Copal is mined primarily in Zanzibar, South America, and New Zealand and has been traditionally used to create beautiful ethnographic jewellery pieces. It is often referred to as amber in the trade so it pays to know what you are buying and from whom you are purchasing.
Although they are technically an imitation, “African Amber” beads are beautiful and valuable in their own right. Due to their cultural and historical significance, these beads are highly prized and sought after.