Should you clean old African trade beads? I’m personally not averse to the idea of giving trade beads a gentle rub over if using them for jewelry, provided they are not fragile.  However, there are many people who are against the idea because they believe it detracts from the value and beauty of antique trade beads, which have often lain forgotten or buried for more than a hundred years.

If you are intent on sprucing up your beads for stringing, jewelry making or resale, there are a few tips worth noting before taking toothbrush to bead.

1. Don’t Use a Toothbrush

Many bead sellers  advise using a softened toothbrush to gently loosen ingrained dirt from beads, however, even with the softest brush you run the risk of  scratching the surface, and loosening weakened glass were the beads have been chipped. Rub stubborn areas with a moistened Q-tip or cotton bud, as the cotton will usually penetrate smaller cracks.

2. Use Ammonia

Ammonia is a handy household cleaner, yet it can also work wonders for your beads too. Add a teaspoon or two to a container of water, and leave the beads to soak for as long as possible. You’ll find that most of the ingrained dirt and grime comes away without the need for rubbing.

3. Soak Beads in a Plastic Container

Old trade beads often have fractures and inclusions which can sometimes weaken if they bang against one another, or against a glass bowl. Plastic is softer and more flexible, therefore minimizes the possibility of damage.  

4. Remove Beads from the Raffia

Contrary to popular belief, raffia is not a man-made product – it’s woven from dried grasses, As it ages, it has a tendency to split and weaken due to the weight of the beads. Immersing raffia in water can accelerate this process, and also cause it to rot.

5. Allow Beads to Dry Naturally

As tempting as it may be to rub your old beads dry to achieve a high shine, you run the risk of towel fibers getting caught in fractures. Pull the fiber away may cause the fracture to weaken, and further cracks to appear.


Looking at this strand of Tomato Beads, it’s hard to believe they’re over a hundred years old. With their smooth oval shape and vibrant color, these stunning antique Trade Beads appear almost brand new! But, their seamless beauty is in part due to their origin. Tomato Beads were first produced in Murano, Italy at the turn of the 19th Century, during a time when industrial development was evolving many a traditional art-form.

These large, translucent beads were created by densely winding glass around a mandrel whilst hot. Each bead would then be rolled upon a flat metal sheet to achieve the spherical oval shape, and the ends ground down to eliminate winding marks. Their name derives from the limited number of colors in which they were produced – usually red, yellow and orange. Venetian Tomato Beads tend to be larger than other ‘plain’ trade beads as they were used as both ballast for ships, and as a form of currency for trade among tribes in Africa. They were predominantly traded in Ethiopia from the 1830s, however, strings have also been found in parts of West Africa. 

The modern appeal of Tomato Beads may be obvious to budding collectors, but if you’re a jewelry designer, these antique Venetian Trade Beads can also add significant value to your creations. Strings are rarely cheap, with prices in the region of $40-$200, and many people are now buying pieces of jewelry due to the value of single beads alone. If you are thinking about purchasing a strand, look for strings that have typical signs of general wear, such as inclusions, as these tend to be old and extremely valuable. 


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African Recycled Glass Beads run the gamut of styles, shapes and sizes. But, while I’ve been using these eco-friendly african beads in my own designs for several years, it still feels as if I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the sheer variety of styles produced across the continent. Mauritanian beads are one [...]

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The Dark History of Antique Venetian Trade Beads

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Exuberant and ornate, it’s not difficult to imagine why Venetian Trade Beads were so highly coveted by African tribespeople during the trade era. An essential component of trade between African tribes and European merchants, the demand for Chevron and Millefiori Beads in the 13th Century was such that by 1291, the number of glass factories [...]

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A Favorite African Trade Bead: Antique Chevron Beads

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Antique Padre Beads

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Making Jewelry with African Antique Beads

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How to Clean Antique Beads

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People often ask us how to clean and maintain their antique beads and trade beads. Because antique beads can often be as old as several hundreds of years old, collectors must be very careful and precise in the way that they clean them, especially with african beads, which may have a layer of dirt or [...]

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Ancient African Beads

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Beads from Africa are made in all four corners of the world, especially old and antique african beads. Millefiori trade beads were made in Venice, Italy. Annular wound dogon beads were made in Germany. And Russian blue beads were made in the Czech Republic. But perhaps the most fascinating ancient beads are those recently found [...]

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