The History of Trade Beads

The History of Trade Beads

Trade beads are a group of glass bead styles made in Italy, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic between 1300 and the 1900s.

Beautiful and colorful beads were used as a primitive form of currency during the establishment of trade networks between Europe and Africa and Europe and the Americas. Ships would carry entire shiploads of beads to Africa where they would be traded for gold, ivory, palm oil, spices and fur.

Missionaries often traded beads in exchange for safe passage throughout Africa.

The glass beads were highly desired in Africa as the methods by which they were produced were not known by most African inhabitants. This made the beads valuable and highly-prized by tribes in West Africa.

It is often said the beads were strung on fragile cord, easily broken and the tribes had been told it was bad luck to pick up the beads once they were on the ground. There is no way to know if that is true, but it would explain why pockets of beads are still being found.

Our supply of trade beads is limited to availability. Most of the beads we are able to purchase have been found in Ghana, often when fields are plowed for farming.

Please remember, these beads are old. When we receive them, they often still have the earth of Africa in the tiny nooks and crannies of the glass. The surface will often show slight wear. We take great care in restoring them to their best beauty, but the true beauty in the ownership of these beads comes from understanding that each bead is rich in history, having travelled thousands of miles, over three continents and having been previously admired, loved and held.