African Trade Beads

Millefiori Beads

Antique Millefiori Beads (c. 19th Century)

Antique Millefiori Beads (c. 19th Century)

Millefiori Beads (also known as “Mosaic Beads”) are a type of Venetian Trade Bead mass produced in Murano, Italy during the late 18th and 19th Century. The term “millefiori” is an amalgamation of the Italian words “mille” (thousand) and “fiori” (flowers), and was first used in A. Pellatt’s book “Curiosities of Glassmaking” in 1830.

The term “millefiori” refers to the floral design of the beads, which are created from multi-colored glass rods known as “murrine”. Glass rods used for the production of Millefiori Beads differ to those used for Venetian Chevron Beads in that they are composed of many smaller rods fused together in a design only viewable when the ends of the cane are cut. To make the beads, the murrine rods are heated in a furnace and pulled until thin, then fused with several more to create the structure of the bead. The exact positioning of the rods would determine the symmetry of the ‘flowers’, and only the most skilled of Venetian artisans were allowed to produce Millefiori Beads for trade.

Venetian Millefiori Beads were imported in their thousands to Africa from the mid 19th Century. They were an essential component of trade, being used as currency in exchange for furs, palm oil and spices in Mali and Western Africa. Since many African tribes were unfamiliar with glass-making technology, these beads represented a new and beautiful objet d’arts – primarily for self-adornment. Millefiori Beads have been incorporated into many traditional rites and ceremonies in Africa. In Ghana, young women are presented with strings of these beads during the Krobo Dipo ‘coming of age’ ceremony. Old Millefiori Beads are distinguishable by their pitted ends and slightly curved shape – often leading them to be called “Elbow” Millefiori Beads”.


Millefiori History, Wikipedia

Goulimine Beads, Inside Mystery

Prosser Beads

Multicolored Prosser Beads

Multicolored Prosser Beads

Prosser Beads (also known as Kakamba Prosser Beads) refer to glass Trade Beads made by the Prosser “cold paste” technique, conceived by English brothers Richard and Thomas Prosser in 1840 for the purpose of manufacturing porcelain buttons. The process entails molding cold paste under significant pressure to achieve individual shapes, before it is fired.

Recognizing that the Prosser technique could potentially be adopted for beads, French button-maker and bead collector Jean-Felix Bapterosses bought the rights to the technique sometime in the 1850s. However, Bapterosses soon realized the paste used for the Prosser technique was too inflexible for making beads. After some experimentation, he discovered that the addition of cow’s milk made the paste far more malleable, and also achieved a sheen not dissimilar to porcelain. Inspired by the popularity of Venetian Trade Beads, he began to produce pressed beads on a massive scale at his factory in Briare, France, for use as currency by European merchants.

Prosser Beads were distinct from other European trade beads in that they were produced in a great variety of colors, and were also translucent. They were received particularly well in the town of Kakamba in the Republic of the Congo – hence the name Kakamba Prosser Beads. According to natives, Prosser Beads were deliberately strung upon weak string so that they would break easily, in turn creating an almost constant demand for more. Kakamba natives were also told it was sacrilegious to pick them up, which is why pockets of discarded beads continue to be found on farmland throughout the region. 


“The French Connection.” Bead Collector

Prosser Beads. Beadazzled.

Trade Beads

Trade beads

19th Century Chevron Beads. ZSM/

Trade beads (also known as “aggry” and “slave” beads) refer to glass beads manufactured in Venice, the Netherlands and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) between the 14th and 20th century. They were an essential component during the establishment of trade networks between Europe, Africa and the Americas from the 16th Century; used as a primitive form of currency to buy gold, ivory, slaves, fruit and palm oil. Glass beads were popular in Africa since the methods by which they were produced were largely alien to most tribes, thus making them seem all the more strange and valuable. European Trade Beads were particularly prized by tribes in West Africa, such as the Asante, whom used them to decorate their most respected leaders and elders.

Although there is evidence of Trade Bead production in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Bohemia, it was the Venetians of Italy who are largely credited with their gross production. Venetian Trade Beads from the 14th Century were simplistic in design with just a few colored stripes. These beads are thought to have been the earliest types of Chevron Beads, produced by fusing canes of individual glass together. Chevron Beads (sometimes called Rosetta Beads) are distinguished by a rosetta or star around the perforation hole – the result of layering glass canes symmetrically to produce a uniform striped design.

The popularity of Chevron Beads waned following the introduction of Millefiori Beads to Africa in the late 17th Century. Millefiori (thousand flower) Beads were made in a similar way to Chevrons, with the exception that canes are solid, rather than hollow, and a far greater variety of colors were used. Prosser Beads, known for their milky sheen, and Dogon Beads, once used to create mosaic gardens in Amsterdam, were also popular during the 19th Century. 



The Fascinating History of Mosaic Millefiori (Murrine) Beads. The Felt Fashion Book Blog.

Venetian Beads.

Trade Beads. The Victoria and Albert Museum.