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What are Trade Beads?

Trade beads are very cheap in Venice, Italy.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2014
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Trade beads are beads of European origin historically used in trading, primarily in Africa. You may also hear trade beads referred to as African trade beads or slave beads, referencing the continent where they were most commonly used, and an item trade beads were frequently exchanged for. In addition to being used in Africa, trade beads were also used in South America and parts of Southeast Asia to trade for a wide variety of goods and services, from Indian spices to Peruvian plants.

European explorers and traders used beads in trade because they would be made efficiently, especially in places like Venice, and they were relatively cheap. In addition to trade beads, traders loaded their ships with brightly colored bolts of fabric, cheap household goods, simple ornaments, and other decorative items. Traders took advantage of the documented African interest in beautiful things, exchanging their goods for gold, ivory, and of course slaves. Trading in beads was much cheaper than offering cash, and the practice of trading goods rather than exchanging currency was widely practiced by Europeans in encounters with indigenous people.

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Trade beads were used in Africa from around the 1600s to the 1900s, and they were used in such copious amounts that there is a steady supply of beads for the modern market. Several companies also produce modern versions of trade beads to meet the demand. African trade beads are used by hobbyists in beading projects, and they are also collected by people who are interested in African history. Depending on when the beads were made and their condition, the value varies considerably.

Glass was one of the most common materials used to make trade beads, as the Venetians perfected a mass-production method which allowed them to produce glass beads in high volume. Traders also used metal, wood, coral, and other materials for their beads. In Africa, trade beads were in high demand, with women and men alike wearing trade beads to display their wealth. African crafts also incorporated the beads. Some very fine examples of African beadwork and projects such as baskets including beads can be seen in museums dedicated to African history.

Some beading stores carry African trade beads, in both single units and strings. It is also possible to order trade beads through companies which specialize in beading or imported African products. When buying trade beads over the Internet, care should be taken, as it is hard to assess the true value of beads from a photograph on a website. Especially when buying expensive antiques, going through a company with a good return policy is a good idea, in case the beads do not turn out as expected.

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