Beads are a fundamental part of Ghanaian heritage. Not only they testament to the vibrance of Ghanaian creativity, but they also play a significant role in the country’s history, rituals and culture.
WorldRemit travelled to Ghana and spoke to Garbe Mohammed, a fourth-generation bead merchant, who has sold and traded beads across West Africa his whole working life.
He spoke with us about his passion for his craft and revealed some of his secrets - including a seven-layer chevron and Roman face beads.
There’s so much more to beads than just decoration. Read on to find out more about the history of beads and what they mean for Ghanaians.
What’s the history and meaning behind Ghanaian beads?
Beads have been a part of Western African culture for a long time.
1. Origins of Ghanaian beads
The exact origin of beads is a hotly-debated topic. However, archaeologists have confirmed that the craft of bead making, especially in Ghana, goes back thousands of years.
So, what do people use beads for in Ghana?
- Celebrations and festivals
- Artistic expression
- As a spiritual object
- Fashion statement
- Trading currency
"From the 16th century, ships bound for Africa and the Americas would load up with huge quantities of trade beads. On the outbound trip, they would act as ballast, and on arrival would be used to barter for spices, fabrics, precious metals and even slaves," shared Garbe with us.
"Many were Venetian, including glass chevron beads and millefiori. These beads are now sought-after collectors' items.
2. Ghanaian beads in the modern era
Over the past decades, many locals began to consider beads as slightly old-fashioned.
Luckily, their popularity is growing again. They are getting more and more attention among collectors, jewellery makers, and everyone who loves and appreciates their captivating beauty – in and outside of Africa.
The history and heritage of Ghanaian beads are also protected by the Ghana Beads Society. The first of its kind in Africa, the society is dedicated to recording, preserving and promoting the culture of Ghanaian beads.
Who are the main beads producers in Ghana?
The majority of beads produced come from the Ashanti and Krobo people in the Krobo region, who occupy areas of Accra Plains, Akuapem Mountains and the Afram Basin.
The craft is often based on a family tradition, and know-how is passed on from one generation to another. Using mainly handmade techniques, beads often have unique designs and charm.
What are some different styles of Ghanaian beads?
Here are some of the most popular styles of Ghanaian beads.
Krobo powder glass beads
Formerly used as a trading currency, these beads are named after the region where they’re made. They’re possibly the most popular African beads.
The beads are created from layers of powdered glass mixed with dyes and poured into moulds. After heating and cooling, the finished bead is sometimes hand-painted with original designs.
Recycled glass beads
Recycled glass beads (or bottle glass beads) are an excellent example of creative recycling in Africa. Ghanaian craftsmen and women smash old or broken bottles into pieces as big as peppercorns. The end product is heated in a wood fire and polished to perfection.
The technique used on brass beads originated from an ancient process called 'lost wax'.
Made in the old Ashanti Kingdom area in central Ghana, each bead is created in a bees wax mould and covered in clay.
The mould gets heated and cooled, which often causes it to break in certain places – so each bead is unique.
The originals can be dated by the number of layers of coloured glass used to make long canes, from which the beans are ground.
“These beads were used for barter trade in the olden days. Some of these beads were even exchanged for slaves,” says Garbe.
What products are made with Ghanaian beads?
- Ghanaian waist beads
Waist beads are the most common beaded items worn by Ghanaian women. Traditionally, in the areas of Ashante and Krobo, girls began wearing waist beads after their coming of age.
Nowadays, many women are going back to this tradition and embracing these beautiful beads.
- Ghana beads jewellery anklets, bracelets and necklaces
From anklets to bracelets and necklaces, beads are used in many types of jewellery – for both men and women. Here are our favourite picks.
- Ghanaian beads bags and clothes
Today, beads can be seen everywhere, decorating bags, shoes and clothes! These unique, handmade products have a special place in many people’s hearts.