Christina - These are traditional beads worn by various tribes of
West and North Africa, primarily. They can vary in size from quite
small (often woven into the hair) to fairly enormous, way bigger
than golf balls, and compared to fossilized amber, quite dense and
heavy. They may be Copal, which is defined as a “young” amber,
actually collected from living trees, although some of it has been
found in fossilized form.Copal comes from several parts of Africa,
including Tanzania, Mozzambique, and Madagascar in the east , along
the west coast from Sierra Leone to Angola, plus Niger and Zaire.
Beads out of the Sudan, and most other areas, are generally a fat
donut shape, while from Mauritania, you may also find diamond-shaped
beads, often cross-drilled, point to point, as well as straight
through the center. It’s similar in shape to the Ojo de Dios symbol
(Eye of God). Smaller, barrel-shaped beads are also seen. Most are in
shades of buttery golden yellow to deep red- brown, with a matte,
waxy-looking surface. Some can be red. I’ve even collected some
gorgous - and very pricey - parrot-green, but only in small beads
-and I’m not sure they couldbe classified as copal, anyway. .I’m
still sleuthing them. Personally, I have never seen or heard of
Copal Amber beads are virtually synonomous with the wealthier tribes
of the Sahara, worn symbolically to denote marital status, wealth,
even tribal mythic beliefs: The Dogon and Songhai of Mali, the
nomadic Fulani ( Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, etc.), the
Guedra of Mauritania, the nomadic Berber tribes of the Maghreb
(Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, western Libya), the dowry necklaces of
the Harer of Somalia.
Just as the enterprising Venetians of centuries past duplicated
widely - coveted carnelian and other stones in glass for the bead
trade, amber substitutes have been traded in Africa. So has real
amber from the Baltic, for that matter.
Like so much of the authentic antique trade and tribal beads coming
out of Africa, the old material can be pretty scarce these days.
Several years ago, during their economic boom years, the Japanese
were buying up all the copal amber trade beads they could get their
hands on, and the traders’ prices would double, then double again,
within 2-3 months. Things simmered down, but I rarely see it offered
for sale anymore - that is, the real stuff, and it can be pricey.
What I do see, seems to be some kind of resin, or maybe a
reconstituted amber/resin material, especially in the case of the
cherry reds, some of it opaque, some transparent. Even if they aren’t
real amber, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t real tribal beads.
Manmade substitutes from Europe and Russia have been traded there for
over a century.
If you are curious, I recommend Angela Fisher’s Africa Adorned
(1984, Abrams Publishers). It is sort of the bible on the subject,
with gorgeous photos.