A while ago I was having coffee with a Lakota woman well known as a beadworker. As we talked I could see her glancing at the South African bracelets I was wearing—leather bands covered with brightly colored beads in geometric designs—which I had bought in an African boutique in Washington D.C. I slipped them off and handed them to her, and she looked them over with the sharp eye of a professional needlewoman. "They're our beads," she finally said, "and our colors, but we would never make these patterns, and we would never leave the edge unfinished in this way!" We agreed that the Ndebele woman who made them would probably have said something similar about a piece of Lakota beadwork, and we started talking about the long and strange history of glass beads.The tiny bits of glass tubing—seed beads—that the Lakota elder referred to as "our beads" are only one of hundreds of types of glass beads used for trade throughout the world since the 17th century, but they are certainly the most numerous. Glass manufacturing increased in volume and scale at roughly the same time voyages of European exploration were beginning, and beads—colorful, exotic, inexpensive to make, and relatively durable—became quintessential trade goods. For European traders, they turned a stunning profit: In some areas hanks of beads could be exchanged for goods worth 1,000 times their wholesale cost. They were no less valuable to their new owners, who admired their brilliant colors and ability to catch light. Manufactured in Bohemia, in Venice, in Holland, glass beads poured into every continent of the globe: large tubular millefiori beads to West and Central Africa, faceted bright blue beads to North America, spherical red beads to the western Pacific. By the 19th century, when technology permitted mass production of tiny rings an eighth of an inch or less in diameter, seed beads went everywhere.Ironically, in spite of the beauty of the older patterned beads and the chromatic range of seed beads, neither type was ever much in fashion in Europe. Europeans preferred to ornament themselves and their clothing with the imported goods they received in exchange for beads: precious stones, pearls, ivory, and furs. Imported goods have cachet everywhere, however, and in their far-flung destinations beads quickly came to represent prestige and luxury. In North America, women used them to decorate clothing and personal effects, often replacing the more difficult and time-consuming medium of porcupine-quill decoration. In West and Central Africa, beads entered royal treasuries, thickly encrusting rulers' crowns and clothing. In Yoruba courts, seed beads replaced larger, tubular coral beads, themselves an earlier imported commodity from the Mediterranean Sea.In virtually every region, beadworking was a woman's art, and seed beads expanded their decorative repertoires dramatically. Not only was the range of colors far greater (and brighter) than that of natural paints and dyes, but new and more elaborate patterns were possible as well. As beads became more common, artists could cover larger areas with them. By the turn of the century, Lakota women joked that they could and would bead anything that didn't move.Sometimes both the beads and the object to which they were sewn had European origins. For example, the beaded bandolier bag, so strongly identified with Anishinabe (Ojibwe) people, was probably inspired by smaller, unornamented European soldiers' shoulder bags. Contemporary Plains Indian beadwork, applied to everything from sneakers to cigarette lighters, echoes the beaded suitcases and handbags of the turn of the century.Glass seed beads are uniform in size and come in a broad but standard palette of colors, and there are only a few ways to attach them to a surface. In spite of this, beadwork is amazingly varied and distinctive. The glass beads, black velvet, floral pattern, and even the form of an Anishinabe bandolier bag may all derive from European sources, but the final product is unmistakably Anishinabe. The very existence of such an object nicely illustrates how new ideas of one strong, long-established culture can embrace and reshape the materials of another. Beads are simply raw material—a tool for marking distinct cultural identity. Because of this adaptability, seed beads are now thoroughly incorporated in the cultural fabric of peoples everywhere. Today their origin in Europe is far less important than the meaning they assume in use. For Lakota people, as for Ndebele or Yoruba, they are truly "our beads."Louise Lincoln is the Institute's curator of African, Oceanic, and New World Cultures.Related ImagesYoruba rulers in Nigeria have long worn beaded crowns or caps, but this version reflects the influence of British colonial rule. The general shape suggests the headgear of British monarchs, but the geometric patterns, strong color, and addition of tiny birds make it completely Yoruba. Gift of Myron Kunin. On this Anishinabe bandolier bag, sinuous floral designs on the strap contrast with the loom-woven geometric central panel, where the beadworker threaded individual beads onto weft strands as she wove. Bequest of Dorothy Record Bauman. This Dayak baby carrier is wrapped in latticed beadwork, which incorporates beads into a thread structure that resembles a chain-link fence. In Indonesia, as among Plains Indian peoples, baby carriers were lovingly decorated with beads and often were made as gifts by relatives of the mother. The Fiduciary Fund. Bamileke people in Cameroon use strongly contrasting colors in geometric designs to emphasize the simple form of elephant masks. The beadwork along the bottom edge of the panel mimics a tasseled fringe. The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund. Bands of dark beads delineate strong geometric forms on Ndebele girl's jocolo, or apron. Similar designs ornament the facades of Ndebele houses. William Hood Dunwoody Fund.