What are trade beads?

October 20, 2009

Spend enough time around beads, and you’ll hear people tossing the phrase ‘trade beads‘ around.

What would you trade to have these...?

What would you trade to have these...?

But what are trade beads (or ‘tradebeads’)?  Rings & Things often gets asked this question.  I got our bead-loving founder, Russ Nobbs, to talk a little about this…

Q:  What are trade beads?

Russ:  Generally the term ‘trade bead’ refers to the kinds of beads collected and sold in Africa. In the public perception this includes

  • European-made glass beads
  • Indian-made carnelian and agate beads
  • African-made stone, metal and powdered-glass beads
  • and, more recently, contemporary glass beads from India and China.

So, it’s a catch-all name for what could be called “African beads just because they are found today in African sources.”

Q:  What do trade beads have to do with trading?

Russ:  When asked if trade beads were really traded, well-known bead researcher Jamey Allen said, “My definition merely says that ‘trade’ beads are ‘beads that were made for exchange purposes, not for use purposes.’  Not all old beads are ‘trade’ beads.”

Very few of the ‘trade beads’ on the market today are truly ‘trade’ beads, in that they were made to sell as commodities.  Beads made for the slave and gold trade are from an earlier era than most of what are called “trade beads” on sale today.

Q:  What are some major kinds of trade beads that people might enjoy checking out?

Russ:  At Rings & Things we tend to describe this category as “African and Trade Beads.” This includes Indian stone and European glass beads made in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. It also includes the powder-glass beads made currently in Ghana and lost-wax cast metal beads from Ghana and Ivory Coast. These were made in the last century and production continues today.

Thanks to Russ for sharing some thoughts about this.  Have another question for our resident bead expert?  🙂  Ask here!

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  • Reply Lori Anderson October 23, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Interesting info! I’ve wondered about the official meaning of trade beads. My dad collected some from islands he’s visited and lived on but I can’t manage to snag them from him!

  • Reply Dave Robertson October 27, 2009 at 9:13 am

    I wonder which islands…? That could be some very interesting stuff, Lori!

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