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Beaded Jewelry: Stylish or Functional?

Beaded Jewelry: Stylish or Functional?

Before I came to Ghana, my mom sent me on a mission to find her beaded jewelry. At first I thought this was a strange request; however, after spending the past few weeks in Ghana I’ve developed an obsession with West African beads.

There is an overwhelming amount of beaded jewelry here. Modern bead makers draw on resources such as sea shells, glass, clay, stones, palm nuts, plant materials, ostrich shells, and bones. There are colorful beads, gold beads, black beads, carved beads, painted beads and more.

Beaded necklaces at a local market. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Benner.)
Beaded necklaces at a local market. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Benner.)

My newfound fascination led me to research the history of bead making in Africa, and to observe how the style is becoming a Western trend.

I found that beaded jewelry is not a new style for the continent. The oldest recorded bead in Africa dates back to over 75,000 years ago in Cape Town, South Africa, where archaeologists have found beads made out of ostrich eggs.  In the fifteenth century, when European explorers began coming to Africa, the bead trade increased significantly. During the Golden Era of European trade, between 1700 and 1920, it is estimated that beads for jewelry making accounted for 40 percent of African imports.

I’m not alone with my obsession; many celebrities are also wearing traditional African beads, thus making the jewelry become more popular in the global market. Beyoncé proudly wears the style in her recent visual album, Lemonade, where there is a notable African aesthetic in many of the tracks. Similarly, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, have also been seen wearing African-inspired jewelry.

Eventually my interest directed me to a local bead maker in Kumasi, who I had the opportunity to interview for my internship at Today newspaper. I learned that bead making is passed down from generation to generation. David, the man I interviewed, learned how to make them from his mom, and she learned from her mother.

I also learned that beads serve a wide range of functionalities. They aren’t just for fashion. David told me that beads are used for ceremonial purposes, funerals, weddings, deaths, births, and more. Because of all the different usages for beads that have been around for centuries, it doesn’t look like production is going to slow down anytime soon.

Two of my favorite beaded necklaces I've purchased in Ghana.
Two of my favorite beaded necklaces I’ve purchased in Ghana.