The Full History of Millefiori Beads

Millefiori is a combination of two Italian words, ‘mille’, meaning one thousand, and ‘fiori’, meaning flower. Millefiori beads are longer than the conventional beads and the patterns are made using molds made from canes. The canes come from Italy and although they have a plain exterior look, the interior has floral, star, and geometric patterns. The technology of making millefiori beads has not changed over the years and all beads are still made by hand. This makes each bead unique and they have different designs and color variations.

Early History of Millefiori Beads

Millefiori beads, also called mosaic beads, were used in Phoenician times, Roman times, and Alexandrian times. Archaeological evidence in Ireland has shown that canes were used in bead making as far back as the 8th century. There is also archaeological proof that canes were used in bead making by the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century.

However, the art of millefiori was lost for many years and the technique was only revived in the 19th century. This led to the establishment of factories making millefiori beads in England and France, but most of the beads were made in the Italian city of Venice.

Millefiori Beads in the Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century

Millefiori bead making technique was revived in the late 19th century following the partition of Africa and following increased trade with Africa. Europeans who wanted to ease their way through Africa commissioned millefiori beads and used them to trade with Africans and to win them over. These beads were also called trade beads or slave beads. Most of the trade went on in West African and in exchange for the beads the Europeans got palm oil, gold, ivory, and other goods, services like carrying cargo around, and slaves.

Millefiori beads in the late 19th century and early 20th century were made almost exclusively in Venice. Venetians had a long history of making beads and they still do today. However, note that the phrase ‘millefiori beads’ is also used for beads from other countries, provided they have a mosaic pattern.

In Venice, most of the bead work was done in a town north of the city, Murano. It had a busy port and this made it possible for beads to be exported to Africa easily. In the 1930s, Ermanno Toso led to modernization of the theme of millefiori beads and other millefiori products. However, the difference in ancient beads and modern beads from the region is small.

West Africans placed a lot of intrinsic value on decorative beads and this fuelled the development of the trade. Africans did not have any use for hard currency and the Europeans were not willing to trade with the Africans for money. The Africans used the beads to show status in the community, to trade with each other, for decorative purposes, and to as a store of wealth.

Recent History of Millefiori Beads

In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, air travel improved drastically because of technological advances in the industry and the fact that people in the west had disposable incomes. The ‘hippies’ travelled all over the world and when they went to West Africa, they discovered Millefiori trade beads and started using them as jewelry and to accessorize their clothes. Soon after, the trend caught on and the beads became very popular.

Since millefiori beads are hard to come by, this has made them collector items. The beads have been appreciating by an average of 10 percent every year. When buying millefiori beads, note that some of the beads in the market have only been recently made, mostly in China. This is done to meet the growing demand for millefiori beads by hobbyists and others. Ancient trade beads are not flawless and the designs are unique.

Leave a Reply