Sunday, December 30, 2012

Baubles, Bangles and Slave Beads

We shared our Christmas dinner this year with an accomplished Oakland photographer named Bill LaRue. Bill is a neighbor and an interesting and very charismatic gentleman, who has lived in Oakland for some 30 years. On the drive to dinner at my brother's house, Bill chatted about some of the various changes he has witnessed in the city of Oakland during his residency (Oakland was founded in 1852). Bill also knows a bit about world history in general. As we were sitting down to our meal he complimented me on the necklace I was wearing and remarked that it had been a long time since he had seen "slave beads".  The term took me by surprise as I must admit, I had never heard African jewelry referred to by that name before.

Intrigued, I decided to do a little research....

Bill LaRue

My necklace on Xmas eve
In 2004, archaeologists with the Blombos Cave Project found small shells strung together in a South African cave and dated them as more than 75,000 years old. At one point, African beads were used as currency. In the 18th and 19th centuries, millions of colored shell beads were shipped from European countries to Africa in exchange for slaves.

African trade beads owe their unique creation to the need of traders plying the route between Africa and Europe and the affinity of Africans for beads of all types. European merchants created these trade beads to barter items of value from African people. Some of the items found in Africa that were particularly coveted by the Europeans include gold, ivory and palm oil amongst other region specific things

The history of African trade beads or slave beads can be traced back to the 15th century, when Portuguese traders reached West Africa and discovered that the people of Africa attached a lot of importance to beads made from a variety of items such as iron, gold, ivory, bone, organic things etc. Simultaneously, the European traders also discovered that the land was full of resources that Europe was in desperate need of.

some of my other African Jewelry

During those times, although the whole of Europe was rushing to produce them and siphon off the maximum amount of African resources, the leading producers were artisans from the city of Venice that is famous for its rare and unique glass-work even now. Other leading African trade beads producing centers of Europe include Bohemia and the Netherlands. The most popular type of African slave beads is the millefiore form that can be translated into the 'thousand flower'.

In terms of the current day and age, African trade beads have become items that have a lot of value owing to their exotic nature and intriguing history. As per some historians, the African slave beads became popular in the western countries during the decade of 1960 which saw a lot of people from the US and Europe traveling to Africa and discovering the beauty and value of these African slave beads. Resultantly, jewelry made from African slave beads was transported back to the western world where it immediately captured the fancy of the majority of consumers.


 I love these beads as well
 made from fabric
 made from paper

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