Antique Beads Valued for Trading Throughout History, Are Now Coveted by Collectors


My friend Gwen introduced me to the fascinating and enchanting world of antique beads and African trade beads. She has been collecting them for many years and has one of the most extensive collections in the US. She wears her beads and also displays them around her house with pride and relevance. She brings the history of jewelry every time she wear a necklace

Origins of Beads


Antique beads were originally hung on a cord to count prayers and gradually became a religious symbol. The word "bead" is actually derived from the Middle English word "bede", meaning prayer.

Trading beads date back to 40,000 years ago, they have been part of many cultures since their creation. There are records that show that the Egyptians had been making glass beads by 1365 B.C. Evidence of bead manufacturing has also been found in Lebanon and China. Antique glass and brass beads have been found in archeological and burial site throughout many cultures; Egyptian, Roman, Saxon, African, American Native Tribes and Mexican archeological sites.

Beads used for trading in the pre-hispanic Era

The Beauty of African Trade Beads


Many African rulers encouraged the manufacturing of arts and crafts. Beads and jewelry were seen as a way to express the chief’s power and wealth. Jewelry was also used as offerings given to the gods in gratitude for their wealth and power. Beaded objects also served to distinguish rulers from ordinary people.

This Antique beads are now coveted by collectors and jewelry designers. African people wore beads to communicate cultural values in a symbolic language that expressed rank, religion, politics, and artistic attitudes.

Cowrie shells were valued for their durability and shape. The back side of a Cowrie shell resembles a female sexual organ. The front side is shaped like the abdomen of a pregnant woman. The meaning is not erotic, but represents the miracle of life. Throughout Africa, and South and North America, Cowrie shells symbolized the power of destiny and prosperity.

Today, jewelry and necklaces made with this antique beads are increasing in monetary value, and have become a commodity amongst collectors and investors.

Learn how to integrate African trade beads into your handmade beaded jewelry

cawrie shells were valued as treade-beads that represent the value of women in society During the fifteenth century, stone beads were developed in the kingdom of Benin (known today as Nigeria) with the encouragement of Oba Eware the Great. These beads were made of primarily jasper and occasionally also carnelian and chalcedony. Latter red coral was introduced and became the most coveted type of bead.

Benin craftsmen became experts at carving stone antique beads coveted by the royal court.

Beads were considered so important in old Benin that only the royal families were allowed to wear them. They were commonly unaffordable for ordinary citizens, they very few wealthy enough to own some of these bead types risked punishment by execution on wearing them, and for this reason they usually kept them well hidden, typically buried in a corner in the mud floor of their houses.

No titled chief was allowed to visit oba unless he wore his necklaces made of beads, and if he lost them, he could be punished by death.

The beaded regalia of the oba became increasingly elaborate until, by the seventeenth century, entire costumes of coral beads, including skirts, shirts, and crowns became the official royal dress.


When European explorers and traders arrived in West Africa in the early fifteenth century they noted an abundance of gold jewelry, including beaded necklaces and bracelets. Glass trading-beads were bartered by Africans for incense, ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn, palm and coconut oils, timer, pig iron, and gold. Between the 1500s and 1867, it’s estimated that fifteen million slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas for the exchange of European glass trading-beads.

Most trading beads were made in Venice Italy. The Venetians made glass beads as far back as 1,000 A.D. and held a near monopoly of the bead industry for nearly 600 years. To protect their trade secrets the Venetians went so far as to imprison the nearest relatives of any defecting glass worker and if the worker would not return, an assassin was sent to kill him.

There are many collectors of antique beads. They are coveted as collections and investment. The demand is so high that many of these beads are becoming increasingly rare and difficult to obtain, their value and price has increased that they are becoming more difficult to buy.

The use of trading-beads extended to the Americas.

On October 12, 1492, Columbus recorded in his logbook that the natives of San Salvador Island were given red caps and glass beads. This is the earliest written record of glass beads in the Americas.

The Spanish explorer Hernando Cortéz landed on the coast of Mexico in the spring of 1519. His ships carried glass beads along with other European trade goods. They traded this beads with the Aztecs and Mayans for gold, silver and other goods.

The Spanish explorers Narváez in 1527 and De Soto in 1539 carried glass beads for trade with the native inhabitants of Florida.

In 1622, a glass factory was built near Jamestown, Virginia. Less than a year later, a raiding party of Indians burned the factory. Very few of the trading-beads made in the Jamestown factory are believed to exist today.

Ancient Native American Indians had worn beads for centuries made of antler, bone, copper, shell, stone and wood.

The Vikings, Christopher Columbus' party, Spanish Explorers, Jesuit Priests and Lewis and Clark all brought glass beads for trade with the American Indians. Lewis and Clark brought glass beads to the Idaho Territory as trade-beads for the American Indians.

Some of this antique beads can be still found in the United States

trading beads were used by the native american tribes

Reasons to collect antique beads
  • They are hand-made by our ancestors
  • They are a great investment
  • They are small, easy to display and maintain
  • They make beautiful jewelry you can wear
  • Each, Antique-bead with its fascinating history, has a story and you can tell it when you wear them.
  • To integrate them into beaded jewelry making.

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