Published: The East African Nation media 26 October 2019

I stared at myself in the mirror, transfixed and let out an audible gasp.  The beaded collar copied from the Egyptian queen dating more than 4,500 years, adorning my skin was the single most beautiful thing l had ever worn.  It held me mesmerized, entrenched and enchanted me into the world of beads, that l had until hereto little interest in.

Amarna_necklace._Faience,_8_rows_of_beads The 11th turquoise bead on the right bears the cartouche of Akhenaten From Amarna Egypt 18th Dynasty.. The_Petrie_Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London. Courtesy Alan Donovan

Human history can be traced through the simple bead dating as far back as 25,000 years ago when the bushmen of South Africa collected sea-shells off the coast and adorned themselves with them.  Since then, beads have held humans captive, fabricated from almost every material possible from the sensual earth to priceless diamonds; from precious metals of gold, platinum and silver to plant seeds and the bones and horns of animals.  People have killed, looted and traded for them.  The American Indians traded Manhattan Island for the simple bead and today, bead collectors the world over covet for priceless beads found in pockets in Africa.  No other artifact on earth has held humans so compassionate as the simple bead.

Faience bead necklace. Copyright Alan Donovan (800x653)
Faience bead necklace. Copyright Alan Donovan

“That’s because people like to adorn themselves,” responds Alan Donovan, a bead historian, who has traveled the African continent since the 1960s and is most famously known as one of the three creators – together with the late Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice-president and his wife Sheila – of the African Heritage, the largest Pan-African art gallery on the continent.

The Faience Bead

Still standing in front of the mirror wearing the faience bead necklace with a scarab, the intricate necklace held me in its magical spell.  In the heat of the day, the organic feel of the cool earth beads radiated through my body, so sensually captivating.  Found in the pyramids of the pharaohs and the queens, the vivid blue-dusky green beads were made of silicate-based clay and glazed in a kiln to achieve a brilliance that was regarded as magical by ancient Egyptians.  The necklace was worn by the head model during the African Heritage fashion shows.  The scarab in the shape of a beetle was worshipped as a reincarnated royal spirit.  The faience beads and scarabs adorned the mummies and the tombs of the pharaohs.  The industry survived for 8,000 years with the beads made by master craftsmen in villages until recent times when cheap imitations from China of the faience beads and scarabs made in plastic are more easily found in Egypt.  “It’s the effect of globalization,” comments Alan.  “With regard to African jewellery or jewellery using African designs and components, the obliteration of 8000 years of tradition in Egypt regarding the faience and scarabs is only a reflection of what is happening throughout the continent.”

these pieces for the American Bead museum now defunct, unfortunately and they open the book WORLD ON A STRING by Diana Freiburg, Copyright Alan Donovan (800x450)
These pieces of faience beads were for the American Bead museum now defunct,. They open the book WORLD ON A STRING by Diana Freiburg, Copyright Alan Donovan

“In Benin, the royal beads were made of jasper and agate.  Only royalty could wear them and nobody else.  If the common person was found wearing them, they were executed,” explains Alan.  Each bead was hand crafted with the hole pierced through – a highly specialized skill in the absence of electric tools .  In the ‘Ceremony of the Beads’, similar to knighthood in Europe, commoners were awarded a royal bead by the ‘Oba’ (King).  The royal beads of the Kingdom of Benin date back to 1300 A.D.  The royal regalia of the ‘Oba’ was only made of beads and the Oba required was so heavy he needed two attendants to walk.  Later, coral brought in by the Portuguese became more fashionable.  The commoners meanwhile wore ‘false coral’ beads  of stone or glass.

The most famous image of Africa is the ivory mask believed to represent King Esigie’s mother Idia, which the king wore on his hip. The heads of Portuguese surround the head at the top. Copyright Alan Donovan


The African Bead

Later, Alan and l meet at Nairobi’s popular eatery, the Carnivore where standing on the grounds is the bead museum housed in the African Heritage shop that was started by Alan together with Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s second vice president and his wife Sheila.  In my hand l hold a copy of “The African Bead” written by Alan, giving a chronology of the bead history with some on display from the time the museum was set up in 1990.

Africa more known as the cradle of mankind is also the home of the bead.  From the simple sea-shell beads, the next bead making industry was of the ostrich egg shell dating 10,000 B.C.  The ostrich eggshell beads chipped from the ostrich eggs with a stone tool during the stone-age dynasty, the beads were rounded smooth after a hole was drilled through each.  The earliest known Ostrich eggshell beads are from Libya and Sudan with the San of the Kalahari desert using them since 7,000 B.C.  Closer home, the Turkana used the beads for centuries as dowry until the ban to protect wildlife, forcing them to substitute them for plastic beads.  The big mystery today is where the cache of Turkana ostrich eggshells beads is?  They seem to have disappeared overnight with few found in private collections and museums.

From the ostrich eggshell, people sought other materials to adorn themselves – cowrie shells have been found burial sites in Africa dating 8,000 years.  Besides being used as jewelry, they were also used as currency in commerce with the Portuguese bringing in billions in the 19th century.  Ivory, lions’ claws and many other animal parts were used as adornments.Turkana Bride .jpg

Africa adorned itself with beads from every conceivable material.  In medieval Ghana and many other parts of Africa, beads of ‘volcanic clay’ or bauxite (a byproduct of aluminium ore) from the bottom of Lake Chad and other beads were made and traded on the continent until the 19th century when copies of the bauxite beads were made in Bohemia and traded back to Africa.  The simple bead industry evolved to a highly specialized industry with groups of people becoming famous for the particular bead.  The Ethiopian silver crosses are still famous today as they were when the first ones were produced 4,000 years ago.  The Tuareg silver jewelry from the Sahara, from 500 A.D. with clean cut geometric designs were produced as protective symbols to ward off the evil eye.  Although Muslims they produced crosses to represent the four corners of the earth and as fertility symbols, resembling the Egyptian ‘Ankh’.

Glass Beads

The earliest glass beads made in Africa, according to the booklet, were found in South Africa in a place called Mapungubwe from 600 A.D.  By 1,000 A.D. glass beads were made in the kingdom of Ife, Nigeria and huge quantities found in the tombs including the ‘blue coral’ that was thought to be produced by thunder.  Even today, the exact origin on the bead is unknown.

The empire of the legendary Ashanti of Ghana was based on gold from 900 A.D.  All gold belonged to the king while the slaves could own none.  They were also skilled in the art of the ‘Lost Wax’ casting where molten metal is passed into the hole drilled in the wax cast in the clay in the desired shape.  The wax, as it melts, replaced by metal and the clay mast opened once the molten metal has set.  Each piece is a unique work of art – but tragically millions have been lost as they have been melted down to make new castings.

African Twilight cover. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x450)
African Twilight cover

Many of the old beads were made in Europe and India and transported to West Africa initially by Arab traders, overland from North Africa.  Imported glass beads made a big impact with the sea routes opening up to the Americas and Asia in the 15th century.  European traders in their sailing ships, used beads as currency to purchase gold, ivory and palm oil and other items on the triangular trading routes from Europe to West Africa then onto the West Indies to return with produce from the plantations.  Before then, dhows from the East had been trading with the East Coast of Africa for 2,000 years, bartering beads for elephant tusks, rhino horns, and animal skins.  West Africa became the biggest enclave for the European trade beads from Venice, Holland and Czechoslovakia, which are today disappearing rapidly.  “Today, all the trade beads from Venice to Africa are in New York,” comments Alan.  “The chevron glass bead which is the king of all beads and worth its weight in gold because it was so coveted in the early African kingdoms.  Layers of different colours of glass were compounded and filed to give a ‘star’ or chevron effect.  They are still highly sought after going by the really high prices in the trade.

In 1292, all Venetian glass making was moved to the island of Murano to protect the city from the heat of the furnaces.  Today, India has taken over the Venetian glass bead industry, replacing it with a more modern bead.   Like the Chevron bead, the Millefiori glass bead is a multi-coloured mosaic where decorations are inserted into the heat softened glass to form patterns.

Few Kenyans will be ignorant of the Czechoslovakian glass bead which has dominated the Maasai bead work for well over two centuries.  Whole Czech families still depend on the African bead trade.

Adorning one of the cases, is a Rendille collar.  Both the Rendille and the Samburu of the northern drylands in Kenya wear collars made of reed or grass, which originally were made of elephant or giraffe tails.  The large beads on the collars pose a bit of a mystery as they are not known in other parts of Africa.  The old bead catalogs from Venice show that these beads were imported to Africa by Arab traders in the 19th and early 20th centuries and traded for ivory.

Contemporary Beads

Moving to contemporary designs, the African Heritage jewellery broke into the international limelight combining contemporary designs with ancient African beads including the gold and ‘lost wax’ sculptures from West Africa, silver from Ethiopia,  including the one of the originals – the ostrich eggshell.

“It was so amazing to find in the desert where there are so few resources, the Turkana making all these wonderful jewelery with beautiful designs,” says Alan, as we stroll through the bead museum he set up in 1990 on the grounds of the popular restaurant, Carnivore.

“Until forty years ago, the bead industry in Africa was vibrant.  The markets in West Africa were overflowing with wonderful beads,” he continues.  “I never thought that they would ever run out.  But there are hardly any now.  All you see now are mostly beads from India.  The tragedy is that most Africans don’t even know what existed and so they don’t even miss it.”

The phenomena is not peculiar to Africa only.  It’s happened in varying degrees across the globe – Europe and more recently in India and China the two emerging global powers. “It happens because the developing world is so enthusiastic about getting modern that they don’t care – they don’t want to be detracted from that,” he philosophizes.  “It will take the next generation or two to come back and learn about their heritage.”  But by then, it may just be too late.

Today it’s difficult to find any jewellery that could be called “African”.  The markets are saturated with the original African Heritage designs like the leaf shaped earrings of the Turkana called the ‘Aparaparat’ and the ‘Surutia’, the coiled brass pendants worn by Maasai married women or boys before circumcision.  Browsing through the markets, it’s almost shocking to realize that most of the designs are either copied or influenced by the African Heritage designs of the 1970s, revealing little innovation or dynamic of new designs.

Bead museums in many parts of the world are fascinating journeys into our past and present, an account of our rich expose on earth, revealing fascinating journeys that people went through to get the bead.

Watch: The World on A String, produced by an American bead enthusiast featuring the African Heritage Odessy of the bold and beautiful bead.