African Beads: How Kiffa Beads Became a Prized Possession

There is an energetic connection some of us have to beads.  We love them.  We love decorating our house and clothing with beads.  We love to touch them and feel them – almost like a primal and ancient connection to ancestors.  I grew up as a Tom Boy – outside and hiking, and it was only in my middle years did I realize how attracted to beads I was – but I didn’t like to wear jewelry or make jewelry.  I had some fun valances or lamp shades with beads, a few stone bead bracelets that I occasionally wore.  I did collect polished stones and crystals (shiny and smooth).  I did incorporate glass beads into my daughter’s Prom dress once.  I did other crafts like sewing, knitting or crocheting and really enjoyed the creativity and freedom of making things, the art of it.

When I started entertaining and being with my grandchildren, one of the crafts they enjoyed (especially the BOYS), was beads – the inexpensive plastic colored ones.  We strung beads for necklaces and bracelets.  We made dozens of bead pets for backpacks.  We could sit outside camping and the kids would come over and make project after project for hours, until we ran out of beads.  Then I watched over the years how they would make and design their own projects and then teach their friends how to make beaded animals and such.  It was amazing to witness and a fond memory of us together – them with their “crafting Grandma”.  

I’m branching out in my view of the art of beads and beading.  I’m amazed at some of the beautiful mosaic designs and art people are making with beads – used for jewelry and decoration.  I’m appreciating the history and cultural value of beads and the generational importance of every country in the world’s relationship to beads – beads as decoration, beads for barter, beads for status, beads for beauty, beads for celebration, beads for entertainment and hobby, beads for art.  This is the first part of a series on beads.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Among the many distinctive African beads crafted across the continent, the tiny glass beads from the Saharan town of Kiffa have emerged as some of the most coveted creations. Known as Kiffa beads, these miniature multicolored wonders have a fascinating history and artistic legacy behind their global popularity today.

The Origins of Kiffa Beads

Kiffa beads originated in the historic desert town of Kiffa, located in present-day Mauritania. Situated on the edge of the Sahara, Kiffa became a prominent trade outpost along the Trans-Saharan routes. For centuries, merchants traveling through the region brought various beads from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to trade and sell. Local artisans began acquiring these imported beads and experimenting with creating their own homemade varieties.

The talented Kiffa beadmakers started fashioning beads using crushed or powdered glass combined with natural binders like gum arabic. The powder glass beads were shaped and molded solely by hand, without the use of molds. This ingenious technique allowed the artisans to produce intricate original beads without importing expensive materials.

While the precise origination of Kiffa beads is uncertain, some accounts date their production as far back as the 9th century CE. The specialized skills required were passed down in Kiffa families, from mothers to daughters, over many generations. The women of Kiffa came to be considered the heirs of this long standing artistic tradition, which they carefully safeguarded.

Traditional Kiffa Bead Making Process

Authentic Kiffa beads are formed through an elaborate process that requires exceptional skill and care. The women begin by collecting broken bits of glass, scraping old bottles, and crushing the shards into a fine powder. Pigments derived from natural sources like henna, indigo, and saffron are also prepared to create vibrant colors.

The glass powder is combined with a viscous binder, often gum arabic or diluted sap. The beadmaker rolls this mixture into a long, thin rod that is wound around a metal spike and shaped into a small bead. The nearly-formed bead is then removed and meticulously rolled between the artisan’s fingers to smooth its shape.

Once the basic glass bead shape is complete, the artisan uses a thin needle-like tool to adorn it with delicate stripes, dots, curves, and geometric patterns. Each bead is dotted and decorated by hand based on the individual artist’s creativity. The distinctive Kiffa bead style includes repeated motifs in reds, blues, yellows, blacks, and whites. But no two beads ever turn out precisely the same.

The fully shaped and decorated beads are hardened over a small heat source like a basic village fire. The women must carefully gauge the right amount of heat and timing needed to set the beads. Too much heat would cause the glass to lose shape; insufficient heat prevents the patterns from bonding. This heating and cooling process transforms the fragile glass-and-binder mixture into a solid, durable bead.

Types and Uses of Kiffa Beads

Kiffa beads were made in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with their own significance and uses. The triangular Kiffa beads came to be the most famous and recognizable. Triangles with gently rounded edges were considered lucky fertility symbols. These polychromatic beads often featured rows of white triangle “eyes” around the center, believed to offer protection from evil spirits.

The triangle beads were assembled into traditional sets of threes, with one blue bead, one red, and one multicolored eye bead. Mauritanian women wore these in their hair at the temples. Diamond-shaped Kiffa beads were also produced in red, blue, and decorated styles. Strung together with other beads and shells, these were incorporated into traditional glass bracelets.

More petite round Kiffa beads were crafted for necklaces and as hair ornaments. Cylindrical, tube-shaped, and cone Kiffa beads provided accents and details to necklaces and jewelry. The beads were believed to transmit cultural values and confer magical powers to the wearer when worn in traditional combinations. Each color and design held symbolic meaning and spirituality in Mauritanian culture.

The Decline and Revival of Traditional Kiffa Beads

For centuries, Kiffa beads were integrated into the cultural fabric and traditional dress of Saharan and West African societies. But introducing cheaper factory-made European beads in the late 1800s led to the decline of labor-intensive traditional beadmaking. As the access to foreign beads increased, the need for Kiffa beads diminished.

By the mid-20th century, the specialized skills were fading as elder bead making artists passed away without passing all their secrets to the younger generations. The art seemed destined for extinction. Then, in the 1980s, anthropologists researching African arts began taking a new interest in the captivating Kiffa beads.

As word of their beauty and incredible handmade artistry spread, Kiffa beads were rediscovered by collectors, museums, and designers. Exhibited as wearable art, the beads came to be seen as masterful micro-sculptures. Their complex patterns and visible handiwork set them apart from all other African trade beads. This burgeoning interest revived production among the female artisan families of Kiffa.

Once again, these tiny talismans were crafted using ancient methods with homemade materials. But the new revival beads, while beautiful, lacked the artistic sophistication of the older beads. Still, the renewed popularity inspired efforts to continue the traditional skills of this Mauritanian glass beadmaking art form.

Why Kiffa Beads Are So Highly Prized

Several key factors have contributed to the coveted status of Kiffa beads worldwide today:

Exceptional Craftsmanship

The meticulous process and extensive handiwork involved in creating each Kiffa bead quickly earned them a reputation as one of the finest examples of African beadwork artistry. Even at 2-6 mm wide, their intricate stripes, curves, and dots reflect remarkable skill and vision.

Unique Aesthetic

Kiffa beads stand out for their muted earthy color tones, mesmerizing geometric patterns, and randomly organic shapes. The visible nuances from being shaped by hand give them an appealing aesthetic and texture.

Cultural Significance

More than just decorative objects, Kiffa beads held symbolic meaning and cultural identity for the Mauritanian and Saharan peoples. Their motifs conveyed spiritual powers, tribal values, and traditions.

Artist Legacy

The labor and skill required to produce Kiffa beads are preserved as a cultural heritage by the women beadmakers of Mauritania—their art honors earlier generations of female artists from the region.

Rarity and Collectability

As production declined in the late 20th century, the remaining antique Kiffa beads became scarce collector’s items highly valued for their age and artistry.

When Kiffa beads resurged in popularity in the 1980s, recognizing their cultural roots added to their mystique. The backstory of the beads – from Saharan sands to museum exhibitions – made them even more intriguing to collectors and anthropologists. Each delicate dot and line represented the remarkable ingenuity of the women who crafted these micro-scale artworks.

The Renewed Kiffa Bead Making Tradition

Since the 1990s revival, groups of Mauritanian women have been working diligently to recreate their beadmaking heritage and pass those skills to new generations. Organized collectives provide empowerment, financial independence, and a sense of cultural purpose for the female artisans.

The new Kiffa-inspired beads produced in Mauritania today honor the old methods and designs. However, they are generally less refined and delicate than the earlier beads. Seeking to revive the lost techniques, some Western artists have also tried making powder glass beads using modern tools but have been unable to truly replicate the random imperfections that give Kiffa beads their rustic appeal.

There remains an aura of mystery around the vanished traditional practices that allowed Kiffa artisans to produce such intricate miniature glassworks using only basic tools and recycled materials. Their secrets seem as buried as the beads themselves across the shifting sands of time. But the distinctive art form they created lives on as a prized emblem of African craft heritage

From Desert Gem to Global Obsession

The meteoric rise in popularity of Kiffa beads across the globe pays tribute to their enduring cultural legacy and painstakingly handcrafted appeal. Each delicate dot and line invokes the remarkable skill and vision of the talented Mauritanian women who turn crushed glass into wearable works of art.

Once traded locally across the desert, Kiffa beads are now exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. The genuine antique beads have become highly valued at auction due to their scarcity. Bead enthusiasts, anthropologists, and craft aficionados are all drawn to the vibrant history encapsulated in these tiny glass treasures.

Kiffa beads offer more than aesthetic beauty or investment value. Their symbolic motifs and visible handiwork provide a window into Saharan culture and Mauritanian women’s artistic traditions. Each bead contains interwoven threads of indigenous craft, skill, and spirituality. Strung together, they tell a captivating cross-cultural story connecting African artistry with global appreciation.

From parched Saharan villages to elite urban galleries, the cultural journey of Kiffa beads is as intricate as their gleaming patterns. Their rise to international acclaim is a testament to human creativity – how, with simple tools and shared purpose, people can craft beauty from fragments and preserve heritage through generations. For these reasons, Kiffa beads have become one of Africa’s most prized artistic legacies.

DaNell Boerup     2023

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop
    Skip to content