Ethiopian silver beads are objects of beauty in their own right. They vary a lot in quality but all bear the tell tale marks of hand craft and this is a large part of the allure they have for me. In a world bursting with machine made objects these have soul and it’s tangible. In the pictures below I am deliberately showing the joins, small “cracks” and other imperfections that mark them as handmade.
The Background Story
Most of the beads are made in small rural villages and with the most humble of tools. When I first began researching them I read that the “silver” (aluminum) ones were made by melting down old aluminum pots and pans which was pretty amazing. Furthermore, modern aluminum pots don’t melt properly; they can only use vintage ones! Then I discovered that old bullet casings are also used for this purpose. The casings are found by farmers who supply them to the bead makers. Sadly there are plenty of these around, a brutal reminder of the conflicts suffered by the Ethiopian and Eritrean people.
The casings are melted down in the traditional way over a bed of hot coals. The process is very laborious and time consuming. Beads produced in this way take various shapes and sizes but the ones I currently use are either bicones (double cone), heishi beads and narrow cylinders.
Beads of various shapes and sizes are also made from recycled copper and brass.
I am so in awe of the (sadly anonymous) bead makers of Africa and the beauty they produce. I hope to continue to learn about them and will share information whenever I find it. They deserve to be known and respected for their work.
Working with beads
Ethiopian silver beads lend themselves to inclusion with textile jewellery and were very effectively incorporated into this piece which I called “Meet me in Mauritius” as the turquoise and silver make me think of the azure waters of that area.
Vibrant red is a colour much favoured by the Maasai people, a semi-nomadic people of Tanzania and Kenya and the dominant colour in this piece which is made from 100% cotton isishweshwe and wax fabric. The central bead in the pendant is a found vintage ivory bead and the central tandleton is encircled with “silver” prayer beads from Ethiopia.
Please contact me for more information about this neck adornment.
On a recent bead search I was delighted to purchase some beautiful paper beads from a Zimbabwean trader. Now paper beads can be find all around Cape Town but often they’re heavily painted. I look for those that have only been varnished so that the original paper is visible. It is here that you can see the real artistry of the beadmaker.
The little “silver’ bead is a Tuareg bicone. These are made by melting old aluminum pots and pans. I have read that they also use old bullet casings in the manufacture of metal beads. The ostrich eggshell beads have been used for thousands of years particularly by the Khoi people of Southern Africa. These ones probably came from Namibia.
I also used some found beads on this necklace as well as some contemporary beads such as glass pearls.
The necklace strands are African wax fabric which is actually probably made in China but is still a very popular textile in Africa.
South African isiShweshwe was used for the textile buttons/tandletons.
Klimt in Africa fits over a medium sized head. It retains it’s circular shape when worn.
Like all of my pieces it is very light and easy to wear.
If you’d like to purchase this piece of have any questions about it, please feel free to contact me by email.