The Story of Beads

The women of northern Kenya regularly weave and bead jewelry. This bead work plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body. Although there are variations in the meaning of the color of the beads, generally white signifies peace, blue signifies water, green the grass upon which their livestock depend, and red; blood, warriors and bravery.

Beadworking has a long history in the region. It is done almost exclusively by women, who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting. Before contact with Europeans, the beads were produced mostly from local raw materials. White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass. The first trade beads arrived from India and the Middle East in around 200 to 300 AD when they were used by merchants in exchange for gold, ivory and even slaves. In the last 19th century, great quantities of brightly colored glass beads were brought to East Africa by traders from Europe. 

Many of these glass bead were carried across by merchants from Italy, which was the main producer of glass until the mid 16th century when a major glass industry was founded, centered around the city of Jablonec in Bohemia, (the current Czech Republic). The glass industry boom here was due to three main factors. First, the nearby mountains contained quartz deposits that were easily mined. Second, Bohemia had cheap skilled labor. Third, and most important, the forests provided a supply of wood to heat the large furnaces required to melt glass. The wood burnt in the furnaces also provided an abundance of potash, an important and expensive ingredient in glass making.

The industry grew from individual cottage crafters who made beads for the larger factories. It takes between 15,000 and 40,000 pounds of wood to create the potash to make 50 pounds of Czech glass. These factories became famous for making exquisite cut glass for chandeliers and tableware and it was only as a byproduct that they began to make glass beads to sell to the merchants.

The industrialization of bead production catapulted the Czechs into becoming world leaders in the field - creating an industry resilient enough to survive through two world wars, the Great Depression and Communist rule. Visiting the North of the Czech Republic today, it is still possible to see local cottages, each with their own furnaces. 

For two hundred years the women of Samburu, Turkana, Maasai, Rendille and Borana have used Czech beads to create some of the most intricate and beautiful beadwork in Africa.