279. A Giant Marvered Glass Trade Bead

Probably Venice, 16th–17th century
Size: 13 cm
Weight: 2.4 kg

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This unusual bead was found on one of Indonesia’s outer islands, where it must have been a symbol of wealth and status. Of similar purpose to the gold pectorals the size of dinner-plates owned by aristocratic families on the Moluccan islands. Already in the 15th century the Portuguese were using glass beads as currency for the slave trade down the coast of West Africa, and so they were also known as ‘slave beads’. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a large collection that came from Moses Lewin Levin, a London bead merchant whose import-export business operated from 1839 to 1913. But there is nothing of this size among them.

Great skill was required to manufacture a solid glass bead of this weight, to manage the cooling process so that it didn’t shatter. The three main glass-producing centres were Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands, with Venice its most probable source. Glass-making became established there after the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when Byzantine craftsmen fled Constantinople and settled in Venice, bringing the secrets of their crafts with them. To protect the city from their furnaces, as the number of glass-makers increased, they were moved to the island of Murano. The value of the glass trade became so great that assassins were sent after its craftsmen who left the Republic, to prevent rival glass-making elsewhere.

After Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, trade beads spread to Asia and America, and while it may appear strange that slaves, gold, textiles and spices could be exchanged for such meaningless baubles, they are really no different from the $100 bill. A woman in a foreign hotel; a Cartier watch; a shatoosh; or a meal in a fashionable dive. At least the beads are colourful.