Sep 26, 2007

Beadwork around the world: Ancient to contemporary

Beadwork around the world: Ancient to contemporary

Beadwork. Photo: Matthew BowdenFrom prehistoric times to the present day, beads have been employed by many people for many purposes. Often used to denote social position, wealth or the achievements of the wearer, beads, by their size, type, quantity and colours, can have powerful tribal importance. There have always been people who value special bones, stones, shells, seeds and beads for their magical qualities. By incorporating beads into the cultural fabric of their lives, native people worldwide have given us a marvelously textured view of history.

Over the ages, the skill of bead makers and the demand for their artwork has led to these tiny treasures becoming an important ingredient of world trade. Used in an abacus or as items of barter, the value of beads in business has been immeasurable. As though they were road signs, beads are used by archaeologists to trace the spread of population and trading routes of ancient tribes and ethnic peoples. To this day, it is hard to find an ethnic group that does not give spiritual, religious, or tribal importance to beads.

My late husband and I were engaged in the art and crafts scene in Kenya for well over 20 years. We ran a small curio shop Bronze and Brass Limited, now closed, which was located in downtown Nairobi. Running the shop was a wonderfully enriching experience which afforded us the opportunity to meet many interesting people from all walks of life and to foster countless enduring friendships.

Beads, as luck would have it, were the wonderful medium through which we forged these relationships. They gave us and our friends (I prefer to think of them as ‘friends’ rather than ‘customers’) the unique opportunity to explore and express our sometimes hidden, though always inspiring creative talents.

But it didn’t start off quite that way. In the 1970s and early 1980s jewellery stores and curio shops in Kenya mostly sold ready made necklaces containing semi-precious stones such as malachite, turquoise and lapis lazuli in standard designs and formats. Any attempt to change them or allow customers to create their own designs was passively discouraged. When such alterations or repairs were undertaken, it was often away from the eye of the customer, behind closed doors and shrouded in secrecy.

Beadwork around the world. Photo: Matthew BowdenAs we continuously talked to various friends, it became more and more apparent that most of them were keen to make their jewellery shopping experience more interesting and interactive. They yearned for the opportunity to explore their creative talents by designing and making their own jewellery. They wanted to mix and match various beads, introduce beads and materials of different textures, try outrageous combinations and simply go wild.

So with such a trend already emerging overseas, we decided to challenge the status quo in Kenya and venture into the bead and jewellery making trade. Instead of focusing on selling ready made jewellery, we decided to focus on satisfying the creative demand of our friends.

We made all the materials necessary to designing jewellery available, from the various tools required such as pliers and cutters to the string on which beads were strung, to the clasps required to secure the beads, to the beads themselves. All kinds of beads, from semi-precious stones to Ethiopian and Somali amber beads, to Egyptian glass beads, to Indian or Yemeni silver beads, to West African trade beads, to cow bone beads, to clay beads, to wood beads, to paper beads, to crimp beads.

The more beads we made available, the more we learnt about them – their origins, their meaning, their significance and their value. With each bead came a story, a connection with the past, and a relationship for the future.

Today, although we no longer have the store, my bond with beads continues. I am still drawn into bead stores whenever and wherever I travel, I am still intrigued by new and different kinds of beads, I still like to design necklaces, and it still brings me pleasure to repair and restore necklaces so that they can be worn and enjoyed as they were meant to be.

Whether as ancient artifacts or contemporary jewellery, the ubiquitous bead continues to have a fascinating appeal to me, be it their creation, cultural meaning, trade and business significance, or decorative and ornamental uses.

Ismailiworld - Be Unite

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