Written in glass

Over the past few years I have been gently growing my collection of traditional West African Yoruba glass beads. (There seems to be a theme for repetition and multiples growing through my posts, and I offer no apologies; this is what catches my interest at the moment!)


The Yoruba tribal land crosses the straight, ruled-line national boundaries that were imposed on Africa’s tribal regions, and spreads across Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Benin. Coral beads are well known as a traditional Nigerian decoration and sometime currency, used for trading, dowries, chieftancy ceremonies etc. The Glass beads that I have been given come from a more recent, early 20th century evolution, in the craft of fused-glass bead making.

green:orange beads

The technique originated with the use of ground up glass bottles, which were then formed into beads by filling clay molds with the finely ground glass that is built up in layers known as the “vertical-mold dry powder glass technique”. This could be seen as a version of ‘sand painting’ when different colours of glass are used. The hole through the bead traditionally comes from the use of a cassava leaf stem, which burns away during the firing to leave the threading hole. Nowadays, the hole is often made by piercing the still hot and pliable glass with a metal tool. My bead collection is mostly made up from what are known as “Mue ne Angma” or “Writing Beads”, conventional powder glass beads made from finely ground glass, with glass slurry decorations that are being “written” on and fused in a second firing.

red:white beads


It is becoming increasingly rare to find these lovely handmade beads in the markets of Southern Nigeria, and they are fiercely protected by the stallholders.bead shop 4.jpg

As always, I am full of admiration for the craftspeople who continue these traditions, the ‘writing’ on these beads is brilliantly naïve and fine, and obviously comes from hours of painstaking work. The colours are limited by the available glass, and in the past, fragments of imported Venetian beads and coloured glass were ground to make the slurry decoration. Traditionally, yellow was the most common glass colour, with black and blue occurring very rarely. I am sure that with the proliferation of modern glass across the African continent colours are more varied now, but still there is a dominance of the earthy yellows, greens and browns picked out with vibrant colour highlights; truly a delight to my eye.

I love the idea that although each bead is an individual, each group of strung beads follow the same pattern.