Colorful glass beads are found at the end of a rainbow (an African fable)
In the last issue we took a look at how the rich African Ashanti populations in Ghana and Benin were literally covered in massive gold and gold-plated brass embellished with colorful glass beads.
The African passion for glass beads is seen as far back as ancient Greece when these were carried from the Middle East across the Sahara in long camelback caravans. During the middle ages, glass pearl trading suddenly stopped and production was centered in Venice where up until the 17th century it boasted a monopoly on production of a certain product called African Pearl.
During the Mali Empire glass beads were set in jewelry and worn all the way to the grave, accompanying the wearer beyond death. In time, the earth pushed the colorful beads to the surface and passers-by collected them, thinking they were natural and divine.
Beads are a status symbol, erotic tool but also a religious sign.
Some glass beads were amulets: in Madagascar they are used for traditional magic and each one has a different and evocative meaning. Besides large beads, Africans love wearing seed glass beads that gradually substituted real seeds used for the same purpose and contributed in the chromatic change in traditional costumes. Colorful and embellishing, glass bead jewelry epitomizes the fears, ambitions, and traditions of ancient African populations, and not only …