The Hidden Meaning of Bead Necklaces

In addition to decoration to attract attention to our face, the most individual part of our body, there are many hidden meanings of bead necklaces:
They help to define and communicate gender, economic status, social role and group affiliation and this is found in all known human societies.
Furthermore they are used as bearers of magic power and protection, used in prayer and as currency.

The beads themselves and consequently the necklaces made of them may hide messages: Their materials can send the message of high economic status like the wealth of gold, pearls and precious stones. The color of the beads can have hidden meanings too, see the chapter about color.

The necklace may indicate a person's position in life:
A grown up person wears different necklaces than a child. In South Africa married Zulu women wear other traditional bead adornments than unmarried women. A Turkana widow in Kenya wears only white beads as sign of mourning.
This in contrast to the black mourning jewelry which became so fashionable during the reign of Queen Victoria of Great Britain (1819-1901). After the sudden death of her beloved husband Albert in 1861 she always dressed in black during the rest of her long life. Until quite recently, the use of black necklaces as a sign of mourning was also practised in other parts of Europe.

The necklace may indicate a person's position in his or her society:
In China high-ranking civil servants, court members and their wives, wore long necklaces of coloured glass as part of the regalia of office during the Manchu or Qing dynasty (1644-1911). As the Europeans dealt mostly with Mandarins (younger sons of ranking families) these court chains were called Mandarin Chains and they were modeled after Tibetan Buddhist prayer strands. Different colors were required for different occasions and rank was indicated by the beads used. With the Revolution of 1911 the Chinese quickly cut off their pigtails (a sign of submission) and broke up the strings of court chains.
In our time the chain of office of a mayor has the same function as an indication of the person's rank.

Bead necklaces used as bearers of magic power and protection:
Necklaces and pendants are used in magic en superstition as amulet and talisman, and to keep off the effect of the “Evil Eye”. An amulet protects against bad things like illness and misfortune. A talisman is thought to bring good luck and positive situations into your life.

The idea of the Evil Eye originated in the Middle East. The Evil Eye is a supposed power to cause harm by a look. The effect of the Evil Eye can be prevented by staring back, so the Evil Eye will avert its look. This can be obtained with the help of one or more "eyes" in the form of a pendant or beads. These are the so called Evil Eye Beads, beads with a circle with a dot in the center, and the Evil Eye can not penetrate their protection. Sometimes these beads have a real eyelike decoration.
This belief is vey old and probably originated in the Middle East during the New Stone Age. (= Neolithic times 8000-4000 B.C.) In Western Asia, eye beads are used since at least 3000 B.C. From there it spread around the Mediterranean and throughout the Muslim World. Still later, Spaniards and Portuguese, Greeks and Italian took it to America. The magic of eyebeads still exists and they are being used in many countries. They are made, among other, in Turkey of glass, in Israel of olive wood and in India of polished banded agate or glass. For the same purpose a pendant or an amulet in the form of an eye is being used.

The color blue and consequently blue beads, have the same function against the Evil Eye (and possible other evil spirits) and are widely used in the Middle East. Blue beads of whatever materials are being used like blue frit beads, faience, turquoise, glass, or plastic.

Real hidden messages by means of bead necklaces: Ucu.
Among the Zulu people of South Africa whole love messages are being sent by means of a string or woven bead necklaces in code. These loveletters are called ucu. Young girls make them for their favored boys. The young men do appreciate these very much, because the more "loveletters" he wears, the more popular he is among the girls. Many of these messages are personal and private communications which the beader does not want to be available to a wider audience. The code tends to be locally specific and it is often only the most general message that can be "read". For the fuller "reading", one has to have a detailed knowledge of the regional and probably the social and the familial context of the beader.

There are bead necklaces with religious meaning and they are often used as prayer aids during religious rituals.
We encounter them among different religions:
The long necklaces made of Rudraksha beads (Shiva's Eye), worn by the holy Hindu men. The rudraksha is a wrinkled dark brown five-sided nut, made into Hindu prayer beads all over India, especially in and around Banaras (Varanasi). Most probably using beads as an aid in counting prayers went more westward into the Islam as the different Islamic prayer strands (worry beads) and later on inspired the use of it as the Roman Catholic rosary. By the way: the English word bead – beads dates back at least some 600 years and originates from the old- English bede = prayer, the same root as bid, beodan = to offer, biddan = to ask and is directly related to the use of beads in the prayer strand.

As an example of not only used as prayer strands, we find among the Zulu of South Africa bead necklaces and other elaborate beaded ornaments as an intrinsic part of their religious regalia during worship festivities.

Bead necklaces used as money and as money-box:
Beads, and subsequenly the necklaces made of them, can be used as money and as money-box. They represent wealth that can be stored and hidden as well as carried on the person. Today, as in ancient times, precious stones, gold and pearls represent safely invested assets.
Stone beads have been used as currency like jade in Chile and carnelian in parts of East Africa. In the Himalayas coral beads function as currency and are an investment which is as good as cash, and can be sold and bought as the circumstances demand.

Glass beads like the Millefiore - and other Venetian trade beads have also served as currency where the market did not become flooded by too-hasty importations from manufacturing centers.

But the material out of which currency has been made most universally is shells. They have been used for ornament and for money by a great proportion of the peoples of the world.

The cowry:
The cowry shell, also written cowrie, is a marine mollusk of the family Cypraeidae. Most of the more than 200 different species of cowries live in the warm shallow waters of tropical seas. Thousands of years they are used in the world trade as bead, amulet and currency, especially two species which appear in abundancy: the Cypraea moneta, the money cowry, and the Cypraea annulus, ring cowry or gold ringer. The cowries are found throughout the whole pacific region, from East Africa to the Central Pacific Ocean, from the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. Subsequently they have been used for currency as well as decoration in Africa and Asia for a very long time. The cowry derives its name from the Chinese character 'cai', standing for wealth, money, as they were extensively used in China too.
Cowries are so popular because they are beautiful, durable, small and difficult to imitate. They can be pierced for stringing but often their backs are removed by smashing, then they are ground smooth. This gives the possibilty to use them as beads in necklaces or to sew them on cloth. In nearly all cases they are sewn with the smashed side on the fabric. Used in this manner, since prehistoric times, cowrie shells were considered as magic symbol of fertility and to protect the female reproductive organs, because of their similarity with the feminine forms. In Egypt, from the Predynastic times of the Naqada Culture (ca. 4400–3000 BC) necklaces are found made of different shells, pierced for stringing and among them cowries with their backs removed. The cowry shells were so much considered prophylactic elements to protect the female reproductive organs that in later times cowrie-like beads were made of gold and used in girdles.

Cone shells:
More than 300 different species of cone shells are found in all areas of the Pacific Ocean and are subsequently used in all the adjacent countries and isles. They are very beautiful and up till today still widely used in jewelry and even imitated in colored porcelain and in plastic.
A popular variation of the cone shells is the Mpande or shell ornament disc which shows a spiral motive. As the cone snail reabsorbs the central supporting column most snails have, the shell is thus hollow. After breaking off the base of the shell, grinding its edge smooth and grinding the apex until a hole is made, a disc remains that is used in many styles of jewellery. The Mpande discs are widely used in Africa, in New Guinea and among the Sioux Indians in the United States of America.
In the African continent they were introduced by Arab slave traders. They were very expensive and became valuable currency themselves. In East Africa they became important status symbols, worn as whole discs or discs cut in half. In 1870 the British missioners destroyed as many of them as they could find in British East Africa, because of their presumed links with paganism. They tried to introduce money but that was not accepted. When crime greatly increased due to the lack of currency, they had porcelain copies of the shells made in Bohemia with serial numbers on them. In time, the Bohemians took the design and made glass copies, some of which barely resemble Mpande cone shells at all. Because of its popularity the Mpande disc too is imitated in other materials like colored porcelain, glass and plastic.

Dentalium shells:
Dentalia are variously sized small tubular ocenean mollusks that resemble miniature elephant tusks and may grow up to several inches in length. These shells look so like animals' teeth that it is difficult to believe they are anything else. This explains their name Dentalium, which is derived from the Latin word dens, which means tooth. Many varieties can be found around the world, there are over 300 species of dentalium, but the species most known is the Antalis Pretiosum (Dentalium Pretiosum), the precious dentalium. These are found along the northwest coast of North America. These shells were used as money and as beads by North American Indians for over for 2,500 years. In the past these dentalia were the only shells that became true currency, because in those times they came from a limited area, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, and thus held their value. Strings of them were given as wedding presents.
Today Asia supplies most of the dentalium shells used in bead work.

Wampum:
Wampum are tubular and disc-like beads cut from various white shells and a purple variety cut from the Quahog clam. On the northern Atlantic coast of America the Native Americans fashioned them into the well known wampum belts, which recorded important events. Wampum were used as money and called Indian money. Euroamericans used them for currency to barter with the natives in New England in colonial days.
The smaller the wampum beads the more valuable they were, because it was more difficult to make them. Another estimate of value was its regularity in diameter, the thickness seemed to make no difference.

During the twentieth century the use of shells as money has vanished nearly completely, although in some parts of Africa they kept their value and sometimes trade is done with loose shells or shells in strings.
One thing for sure: Their decorative and symbolic value remained undisputed.

Antique mourning necklace of hand made ebony wood beads and small French jet glass beads, ca.1900, length 59'' 150cm. Old Yemeni tribal jewelry necklace with large amulet prayer box, made of silver and small red bakelite beads, ca. 1930's, length 20'' 50cm. Unique handcrafted necklace made of hand made blue glass eyebeads from India and small oblique cut drawn black glass beads, 1990's, length 17'' 42cm.
Necklace of hand made sunbaked clay beads with eye motif, Mexico, 1990's, length 28'' 70cm. Necklace strung of ring cowries and small conus shells, Philippines, length 35'' 88cm. Old African Peul / Fulani wedding necklace made of Czech glass beads including imitation half Mpande conus disc, and Venetian glass trade beads, 1930's, length inner row 21'' 53cm., middle row 23'' 58cm., outer row 27'' 68cm.





© 2009 Tsipporah Sofer. All Rights Reserved