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Our African Trade Bead Backstory

There we were in the parking lot out behind our studio on a freezing cold day in December checking out what the guy who knocked on our door was selling out of his van. Shady? Safe? Legit?

Completely safe and legit. We were more than happy to see Ebrima Sillah of Bead Paradise II in Oberlin, Ohio, who swung by with TONS of beautiful, handmade African trade beads. In the cold, we peered into the many tubs of beads in the van and picked a few to bring inside.

And that’s when the fun began! We were in hog heaven as Ebrima pulled out strand after strand of the most gorgeous beads. And, we learned so much from him about African trade beads—including those made in Venice, Italy with millefiori techniques—just like what we do at She Beads with our clay canes!

The antique glass trade beads were mainly produced in the 1600s-1800s in Europe. They were used by European merchants to trade with African peoples for palm oil, spices, precious stones, gold and ivory. However, there are even older African trade beads (called “ancient”) that were made as long as 2,000 years ago out of natural materials (such as amber, wood and coral) by tribal people throughout West and East Africa.

Newer varieties of African trade beads are made from recycled glass in Ghana and batik bone in Kenya, both of which is what we bought. We were glad to hear that Bead Paradise has long-standing relationships with many bead traders who typically run a small family business (like us) and are creating job opportunities in their communities.

Out of everything Ebrima showed us, Sandy picked out the beads in colors she used to create the Pistachio arm candy bracelets and necklaces. I picked out beads in two color sets—one for the Crème Brûlée collection and one for the Raspberry Tart collection. Inspired by the gorgeous colorful beadwork of African culture, each color story holds the history and traditions of West Africa. In each one, we were inspired to create some new, unique designs, like the Sheath necklace with 

Shop our new collections in Pistachio, Crème Brûlée and Raspberry Tart!