Since we started in this business in the 1980s, one of the great enduring mysteries has been the origins of "African Amber" beads. The stories were fabulous: the beads were hundreds of years old (not true), made from bits of real amber and mixed with the resin of a particular tree (not true), became more beautiful as they were worn by picking up the oils in the skin (true!), and had vast spiritual powers (that one's up to you). The legends were epic.
But the reality is no less fascinating, as thoroughly explained in a new paper by our friend Rosanna Falabella, in her paper, "Imitation Amber Beads of Phenolic Resin from the African Trade," published in the fabulous "Beads: Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers" (28:3-15 (2016)).
As Rosanna explains, these beads are actually an early plastic known as phenolic resins, and akin to Bakelite, and date from about 1910, with production continuing perhaps as late as after World War II. As she describes the process:
Phenolic resin is much harder, more rigid, and more durable than the natural amber it imitates. Artisans in Africa have taken advantage of these traits to rework the original beads into beautiful and sometimes intricate works of art (Figure 5). The simplest modi cation is cross- drilling (drilling a hole perpendicular to the original one) which allows the beads to be worn at. A second common modi cation is reshaping cross-drilled beads into soft diamond shapes, a traditional shape found in Africa among real amber beads.
Just a lovely article delving into the history of these beautiful beads