Trade Beads: What’s in a Name?

Vintage blood red whitehearts.

Vintage blood red whitehearts with Karen Hill Tribe Thai sterling.

Ghanacraft has a great article on African beadmaking, brought to me through the eyes of another writer and jeweler and beadaholic, Rabihah Mateen of RAM jewels (check her out!)  I had never researched how the beads were made, mostly because when I think about this I am in front of beads and not my computer!

Rabihah posted an article that startled me, “African ‘Trade Beads”-Meaning Behind the Name.”  From her post: “African slaves were exchanged for the European imports; slaves transported to the Americas were exchanged for goods produced in the New World (cotton tobacco, sugar, etc., which were then sent back to Europe to begin the process all over again).”  She goes on to say that the colorful Venetian beads — my particular favorites — were the ones sought after, and if these beads ended up in Africa it is most likely that a slave was sold to obtain them.

Vintage bright orange whitehearts.

Vintage bright orange whitehearts with Karen Hill Tribe Thai sterling.

I almost always have some on my body, including now as I write this.   I  had never thought of the reason behind the name.  This is one of the things about cultural differences: you can’t imagine a perspective from a view and background so very different than your own until it is pointed out to you.  It is not that you are insensitive.  I am not a racist nor do I condone slavery in any form, and the very fact that it is far from my mind is why I had never put the name ‘trade beads” together with being traded for slaves!  I had imagined they were traded them for food and other goods they didn’t grow in Africa.  It never occurred to me.  This is why it is good to understand other perspectives.

I will still wear them and love them; currently they are not part of human trafficking.  However, I now have a different set of associations with the beads, and while not as nice as my fanciful one, it will bestow respect when I handle them, knowing that people’s lives may have been given for these beads.

Vintage bright yellow trade beads with Venetian cross.

Vintage bright yellow trade beads with hand-blown Venetian cross.

It brings me to another point which is part of my ethics, both in my business here and in the buying habits of our home.   I try to know where I get all the gems and beads I buy.  I reclaim a lot of gemstones, buying old necklaces and repurposing them in new designs.  I buy from small vendors who know the folks who create the sterling charms and bone beads.

Further, my husband and I spend out money with our ethics at the forefront.  We research where our items come from and make choices wherever possibly to avoid items whereby child labor is used, where men and women are forced to work brutal hours in poor conditions for nothing, or where it impacts lives or our planet negatively.  For me, these ethics are important, and I cannot always find an alternative, especially in electronics. as I sit in front of a computer and have no way to avoid harming the planet or participating in some negative humanitarian aspect and still stay in business.  But I can avoid sweatshop habits, pay a bit more for an item (t-shirts) and buy fewer of them, or buy recycled items.  I don’t shop at stores where they cut employee’s hours so they can avoid paying benefits (Walmart, Target, Olive Garden, et all), boycott GMO’s, try to buy organic when possible, and chose to buy my meat from sustainable humane sources, locally.   These choices can be limiting: for instance, we buy much less meat because it is appropriately expensive.  However, torturing an animal to eat it is not necessary, and practices that involve that type of cruelty are cheap and dehumanizing, even for the folks who have to work there.  We use every bit of the chicken, including the fat and bones.  This sustainable attitude is what my grandparents did, and it is a respectful way to live.

My decision to leave Etsy and move to zibbet (eventually I will go to my own website) was based on their decision to support cheap sweatshop producers in the name of handmade.  These choices count.  If you can buy a sterling or gold-plated necklace for $4.99 you must figure that somewhere “slave” labor is at work!  I will pay more for an artisan piece I know is not brutalizing a human life and have fewer trinkets!  If everyone began to do this and told the makers why they don’t want to buy from them changes would happen, as the market is driven by buyers!  Don’t tell me you love animals then buy brutalized chicken.  Don’t tell you me like children then buy sweatshop clothing.

Now when I wear my vintage trade beads, they remind me of slavery, and they remind me of the fight I wage every day to stop these negative practices.


Vintage Italian blood red white hearts on vintage charm found in used shop.


About dkatiepowellart

hollywood baby turned beach gurl turned steel&glass city gurl turned cowgurl turned herb gurl turned green city gurl. . . artist writer photographer. . . cat lover but misses our big dogs, gone to heaven. . . buddhist and interested in the study of spiritual traditions. . . foodie, organic, lover of all things mik, partner in conservation business mpfconservation, consummate blogger, making a dream happen, insomniac who is either reading buddhist teachings or not-so-bloody mysteries or autobio journal thangs early in the morning when i can't sleep
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2 Responses to Trade Beads: What’s in a Name?

  1. I learned a lot of new things here, thank you! We’re living in a complex world, it’s important we can see the connections.

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