Glass beads, a traditional artform

The art of making glass beads has a long history in Ghana, one that has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly 400 years. Here, recycling and artisanship meet in small home workshops where used glass bottles are turned into beads of different shapes, colors and designs.

Here is how they are made, by hand, step by step:

Old glass is crushed using a heavy pestle and ortar, until reduced to a fine powder that is poured into a mold made of clay, where a mixture of kaolin and water prevents it from sticking to the sides. When one wishes to create different colors and patterns, the powder is placed in layers, and when the goal is to create a single-colored bead, it is kept plain. If you notice some beads being more translucent that others, this is because they are made by glass that is only broken into small pieces, as opposed to being ground into a powder.

The clay mold is then placed into a kiln made from termite mound clay and heated using crushed palm kernels which burn at an extremely hot temperature. This “baking” part of the process usually lasts for an hour. As soon as the beads come out of the kiln, now in the shape of small round balls, it is time to create a hole in each ball, for the string to fit through. Some bead holes are made using a small metal tool, and some are made with a cassava stem that burns away during firing, leaving a round perforation on each bead. Once the beads are cooled, they are washed using sand and water, in a process that gives them a smooth, shiny finish.

When we wish to add patterns and decorations (usually on single-colored beads), we do so after their initial firing. The cooled off and processed beads go through a thin wooden stick that keeps them upright and steady, and they are painted using a mixture of crushed glass powder, dye and water, that is applied on the bead by hand, using a small needle. The bead is then fired for a second time, just so that the color mixture is “melted onto” the bead.

After the beads are ready, they are passed through a string, ready to be sold in markets and travel around the world. Locals use them in ceremonies of birth, coming of age, marriage and death, and ARATRA loves using them on necklaces and pendants that celebrate the elegance of natural simplicity.