By Elizabeth Murphy
Bead making is an industry that has long been a part of the West African culture. In the ancient times, beads served a myriad of functions: some were used as a form of currency for goods between tribes, whereas others adorned chiefs and their wives to indicate their wealth and status. Even today, beads hold significance as they are not only a form of artistic expression, but they represent defining life moments, such as birth, marriage, and death. Although the specific history of bead making in Africa has been difficult to trace, archaeologists have discovered that beads in West Africa were derived from different materials, primarily stone, glass, clay, and metal. Moreover, the methods and material used to create beads varied among the many regions.
For generations, the techniques employed in the bead making process have been passed down. Oftentimes, whole villages were involved in the general production of beads. From grinding glass, to washing and stringing the finished beads, to selling them to the market, the community was a part of the industry. The Krobo and Ashanti people have long been responsible for crafting beautiful, vibrant glass beads. Today, beads from this region can be identified by distinctive attributes as being one of four main styles: clear/translucent beads, powdered glass beads, painted glass beads, and seed beads.
Making glass beads is no easy process. Despite the fact that different tactics are employed for each type of bead (powdered glass, seed bead, etc.) the initial steps are the same. To begin, a bead maker begins the process by creating the mould, which determines the shape of the bead. To create the mould, the bead maker first pounds the clay with a mortar and pestle until it is pliable. The clay is then rolled into cylindrical shapes where it is then divided into smaller sections, depending on the type of mould being made. Once the clay roll has been made, it is ready to be formed into a mould by taking the slab of clay and patting it flat with a paddle until it is 1 ¼ inches thick. A wooden peg is pressed into the wet clay to form depressions and is left to dry at room temperature for 3-4 days. The Moulds are then sun dried for another 3-4 days and coated in kaolin to prevent the molten glass from sticking to the mould during firing. Finally, the mould is placed in a preheated oven to dry. Next, the bead maker uses the Kiln, used to fire the mould and creating the desired bead. The moulds are inserted into the one opening in the front of the dome shaped kiln. The next steps are contingent on the types of beads that are made.
Today, the Krobo region is still well known for the manufacture of glass beads. In fact, Global Mamas jewelry is made in the small town of Odumase-Krobo, located in Eastern Ghana. They employ many Krobo local bead makers who have inherited their skills from past generations. The popularity of these beads and jewelry products in foreign markets speaks to the timeless West African traditions and it is certain that bead making will remain an important industry in the future.