Glass beads play a significant role in the production of jewellery in various parts of Africa. While emphasizing their properties, it is worthwhile mentioning that glass beads in many regions are also important as trading-goods and as a medium of exchange.
In the eastern and southern parts of the African continent archaeologists have excavated glass beads most likely imported from Egypt and Rome through the Sahara dated from as early as the year 300, and opaque glass beads most probably brought from India at around the year 200.
Since the 14th Century, the majority of glass beads used for jewellery making in African societies have been imported from Bohemia, Italy and the Netherlands. Venetian glass beads were easily accessible from the early 1800´s – a desirable commodity in the trade between African and European merchants.
Prior to the above mentioned trade, most people would wear beads made out of metal, wood, seeds, bone and a variety of sea- and eggshells. Gender makes a difference in the production of beads in African society. Beads produced in what is perceived as soft materials such as clay, seeds and ostrich eggshells are for the most part made by women, while beads made out of glass are mainly produced by men. At least, it is men who manage the kiln and melt down the glass, even if it is women who collect and grind the glass before it is melted down and recycled into beads.