Snippets About the Ancient Bead Trade

In the West we tend to think of beads in terms of jewelry, but for thousands of years all over the world, beads fulfilled many functions–offerings to the gods, adornment of robes, auspicious gifts, ritual & prayer beads, and traded for gold, ivory, spices, and many other things–beads largely mirrored the culture they were part of. Much of the ancient bead trade was part of the large Asian maritime commerce stretching from the Middle East to West Africa and the Pacific Coast.

In western Asia, when nomads started to settle in city-states along rivers, raw material as well as finished beads were traded. One of my favorite stones, agate, was found and appreciated back then. And the Phoenicians in present-day Lebanon worked magic with their three-dimensional and colorful glass head beads.

The heritage of Romans–according to an old saying sitting around the Mediterranean like frogs around a pond–had beads and jewelry influenced by international craftsmen and artists from Persia, India, Egypt, and Greece, among others.

Prayer beads played an important part in the history of beads, the word “bead” is derived from the Anglo Saxon word “bidden” meaning to pray and “bede” meaning prayer. Christianity was one of the later major religions to adopt prayer beads. Prayer beads from India, China, Japan, Tibet, and Bhutan preceded the rosary beads. Also Tibet, Ladakh, and Bhutan offer the mysterious and famous dzi bead–black or brown with white.

Europeans received lavish jewelry and beads from its colonies in the Americas and the East. Glass bead-making developed in many European countries with the most famous one in Venice, Italy. Venetian glass-makers dominated the world market with glass beads extensively used in the African trade.

African bead production was influenced by its environmental factors and Africa’s diverse raw materials. In the Kingdom of Benin, in present day Nigeria, entire costumes for the court were made of coral beads. Chinese glass beads were an important trade item and by the 1840s China became the largest exporter of beads, including the famous multilayered glass beads.

Whereas many countries reserved beads and jewelry for the rulers and upper class, Indians in India have always produced exquisite beads, often using precious and semiprecious stones but also jewelry made from seeds, wood, copper, and fired clay for the less privileged classes. Colors were brilliant for beads–and fabrics too! Jewelry marked every stage of Indian life with a strong relationship between religion and beads. Indian beads were exported all over the world–with carnelian beads excavated in Djenne in Mali. I have many examples of this far flung bead trade in my workroom!