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  • Place of origin:

    South Africa (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1850-1900 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Glass beads

  • Credit Line:

    Given by A.L Byrne

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Although there is a long history of glass production in South Africa (glass beads formed part of an Iron Age excavation in the northern Transvaal) the tiny glass beads from which most beadwork in the area is produced only became available in large quantities in the late 19th century. These beads were mass-produced in Europe – particularly in the glass-making centres of Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands – and transported to African countries to be used in trade.

The beads became an important element in artistic expressions of cultural and ethnic affiliation amongst Xhosa and Zulu-speaking peoples. Elaborate pieces of bead embroidery were worn by men and women and, through colour and design, communicated the wearer’s ethnicity, age, regional roots, wealth and status. Xhosa and Zulu women continue to produce and wear large quantities of beadwork, particularly on ceremonial occasions.

British people were able to collect examples of beadwork such as this necklace through their involvement in conflicts like the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the South African War of 1899-1902, or via their work as colonial agents.

Physical description

Necklace of imported European beads. Beaded string with a square beadwork pendant with a design of black and white chevrons

Place of Origin

South Africa (made)


ca. 1850-1900 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Glass beads


Height: 42.5 cm

Object history note

Accessions register entry - 'Necklace of European glass beads, made up in South Africa. L. 17 in. Given by A.L. Byrne, Esq.
The necklace consists of red, black, white, yellow and pink beads arranged in a pattern. In front is a rectangular pendant with a V-shaped design.'

Historical context note

Square beadwork panels like the pendant on this necklace are commonly known as 'love letters' (ubala abuyise, 'one writes in order that the other should reply') believed to be used in courtship to carry personal messages. However most Xhosa and Zulu beadwork was traditionally used in communication between the sexes.

Descriptive line

Necklace, beadwork, Xhosa or Zulu-speaking peoples, South Africa, 1850-1900






Ceramics Collection

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