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Origins of African Trade Beads

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 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.

Resultantly, the shrewd business minds of the traders decided to use beads made from glass as leverage to barter goods and raw materials with Africans. The material of glass was picked out primarily because the continent of Africa was still to discover glass working techniques, and its people were found to be in awe of the exquisite glass beads that the Europeans showed up with. An alternate name for these items is slave beads as they were used to barter slaves in addition to basic goods and services. These African slave beads were also known as aggry beads.

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 glasswork 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.

Furthermore, it should be noted that there was no standard production of African trade beads and they were produced on the basis of particular demands instead. This has resulted in individual African trade beads items that draw their value from the fact that there is no other item like it. Therefore, the originality and the unique workmanship are the driving force behind jewelry made of these famous African beads becoming extremely coveted in the present day.


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