Strings of beads

A Brief History of Beads

I find the history of beads such a fascinating subject. It’s no secret that I have been obsessed with beads for many years. I was just a 1980s child when I first discovered the delightful bead shop on Neal Street in Covent Garden. Back then I particularly loved the little wooden painted ladybird beads!

These days much of my bead shopping is done online however whenever I travel overseas I always put an afternoon aside for exploring the local bead shops of whichever foreign city I am in. Hong Kong has a particularly wonderful bead street to explore. Bead collecting is as much a hobby for me as bead jewellery making is.

All this love for these tiny decorative adornments has led more to do a little research around the history of beads. Their story is embedded in so many diverse cultures the world over. These lovely decorations that we primarily use for jewellery, clothing and furnishing in contemporary times, originally held much more diverse significance.

How long have beads been around?

The oldest beads found to date were at Blombos Cave in south Africa and are thought to be about 72,000 years old. Beads were also found at Ksar Akil in Lebanon that were about 40,000 years old.

What were early beads made from?

The earliest beads were made from found materials such as shells and stones that had holes naturally worn through them. Dried seeds and berries that could have a hole made in them were also used. These materials could all be easily strung together. As people became capable of finding and working with more difficult materials other types of beads were made.

Where does the word ‘bead’ come from?

In old English the word ‘bede’ meant prayer and referenced strings of rosary beads that were used during the saying of prayers.

‘Jade’ is represented by the character for ‘bead’ in both Chinese and Japanese. The two items are very closely linked together in both country’s history.

Latin, Hindi, French and Italian all use the word ‘pearl’ interchangeably with the word ‘bead’ demonstrating the close link between both.

What were beads used for?

Through the course of the history of beads many different uses have been applied to them:

  • Trading beads – Beads are thought to be one of the earliest forms of trade between humans and one of the reasons why language was developed. For centuries beads were used as a form of trading commodity or currency.They were exchanged for gold, ivory and oil, amongst other things. Up until the 1950s the Zulu people in Africa imported European trade beads to use as currency.
  • Rosary beads – Beads for counting prayer in the form of a rosary have been (and still are) used by many religions including Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.
    (Check out our selection of lovely mala necklaces)
  • Status symbols – Body adornments made from beads were worn as a status symbol to indicate rank in society and wealth, particularly in African societies.
  • Good luck amulets – Beads were often thought to represent good luck. They were used to ward off evil spirits and encourage fortune to those that wore them. In Asia there were scattered on crops to bring a good harvest.
  • Beads to decorate clothing – From the Renaissance period onwards beads were sewn into clothes and became a symbol of fashionable society.  
  • Bead jewellery – From around the 16th century bead jewellery became popular. It was worn by both women and men.

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