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Old Kiffa Beads from Mauritania

Kiffa Beads by Evelyn Simak

The term "Kiffa" bead is a relatively new name that was created during the 1980s by US bead collectors because many of these beads were being made in and around the Mauritanian town of Kiffa.  The beads are made from finely crushed glass and a binder, often saliva, and they are fired without the use of molds.  For their wearers, these unique Mauritanian powder glass beads had amuletic properties, their colours and the many different, intricate decorative patterns all having specific meanings.

There are several different types, styles and shapes of Kiffa beads.  Probably the most sought after type is represented by the polychromatic triangles, decorated with fine lines arranged in chevron patterns, with or without a central row of "eyes".  Occasionally these triangles are fully decorated on both sides.  There are also blue triangles which characteristically depict a number of white spots, whereas the red variant is usually undecorated.  Complimentary sets of three triangles, consisting of one blue, one polychromatic and one red each, were worn in the hair at temple height.  Diamond-shaped beads, which also come in three variants, were traditionally worn - sewn on a strip of leather and often combined with cowrie shells or other glass beads - as bracelets in a combination of all three styles: blue with white lines or spots, undecorated red and a couple of beads depicting the turtle pattern (so called because it is reminiscent of a tortoise's carapax).  Spheres in a wide range of sizes and decorative patterns were worn as hair ornaments and in necklaces; cylindrical and cone-shaped specimens were put to the same uses.  All these styles were worn in combination with other glass and stone beads.

Although the making of Mauritanian powder glass beads appears to be an ancient tradition, no archaeological evidence that may help in establishing their age has to-date been found.  The first reports of foreign visitors to take scientific note of Kiffa beads were published during the 1950s, and the first beads to find their way to US collectors were introduced during the 1980s.  At about the same time, the craft of making Kiffa beads appeared to have become extinct.  Genuine, traditional Kiffa beads can still occasionally be found on the market today - with luck.

During the 1990s, due to the ever increasing demand for these magical beads, and also to the difficulties of finding sufficient numbers of old beads to supply the collectors' market, organized groups of women bead makers in Mauritania began with the production of new Kiffa-like beads, applying basically the same methods that were used in making the old beads but never succeding in creating beads that were reminiscent of the originals. 

A special thanks to our friend Evelyn Simak for supplying this information.  Ms. Simak is a renowned expert on Kiffa beads and has recently  had a comprehensive article on Kiffa beads published in the  VOL. 29, No.3  of ORNAMENT Magazine.

To see examples of Kiffa beads, Trade Beads and Ethnic Jewelry please visit our eBay store at Africa Direct.

All text and images copyright Africa Direct, Inc.  2006