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  • Place of origin:

    Venice (probably, made)

  • Date:

    19th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Millefiori glass, variegated

  • Credit Line:

    Transferred from the Museum of Practical Geology

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Glass, Room 131, case 85, shelf 7, box C

These glass beads are of the kind known as ‘trade’, ‘aggry’ or, sometimes, ‘slave’ beads. They are usually associated with West Africa but were originally created in Europe, particularly Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands. The history of trade beads dates to the 15th century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of West Africa to exploit its many resources, including gold, slaves, ivory and palm oil. At that time, beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. Over the following four centuries millions of beads were traded to Africa and by the 19th century European bead makers were producing a wide variety of designs specifically for the African trade.

Some designs were particularly popular, such as the millefiori (‘thousand flower’) form seen here, which reinvented an ancient technique from western Asia to produce colourful beads formed of many small cross-sections of multicoloured canes fused together or embedded into a matrix.

Physical description

32 glass beads of opaque variegated glass (millefiori technique)

Place of Origin

Venice (probably, made)


19th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Millefiori glass, variegated

Object history note

These beads were given to the Museum of Practical Geology, located at Jermyn Street, London. The Museum was established in 1835 to illustrate 'the mineral wealth of the United Kingdom and [its] colonies' and contained examples of industrial and artistic products made from raw materials mined from the earth. Its displays included glass and ceramic ware. Some of the collections were transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1901.

The donor of the beads was Moses Lewin Levin, a London bead merchant whose import-export business operated from 1839 to 1913. Most of the beads he dealt in appear to be Venetian although in 1898 the Levin Company was listed as an importer of Venetian, Bohemian and German beads. The British Museum has an important collection of glass trade beads (including some on sample cards) acquired in 1865 from Lewin Levin. (See – The History of Beads, from 30,000 BC to the Present, Lois Sherr Dubin, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987, p10.)

Historical context note

The accessions register notes that the beads were 'made in imitation of ancient Egyptian beads for use in the African slave trade'.

Descriptive line

32 glass 'trade' beads, made in Italy (Venice), 19th century, for European trade in Africa (part of set of 56 beads)

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Beads featured in V&A web theme 'Trade Beads' [http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/hiddenhistories/tradebeads/index.html]

Labels and date

Glass beads
Europe, particularly Venice, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and the Netherlands

These glass beads are of the kind known as 'trade', 'aggry' or, sometimes, 'slave' beads. Made in Europe for use in trade in West Africa, they were given to the Museum by Moses Lewin Levin, a London bead merchant. The beads were produced according to demand, which could vary from region to region, resulting in many thousands of different designs.


Museum nos. 4551:1 to 3-1901, 4552:1-1901, 4553:1-1901, 4554:1 to 3-1901, 1051:2 to 4-1904, 1054-1904 []


Millefiori glass


Black History; Glass; Slavery & Abolitionism


Ceramics Collection

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