KIFFA BEADS showing very rare and beautifully executed patterns on some of the classic powderglass shapes made by Mauritanian women. Courtesy of Thomas Stricker collection. Photograph: Alex and Thomas Stricker.
Kiffa Beads of Mauritania

A Fall From Grace


“They went to the Sudan with salt, pine wood, copper jewelry and glassbeads, called nazm, that they exchange against gold.”



Between the eighth and fifteenth centuries three powerful Sudanese empires emerged in the Sahel—a savanna-belt between the Sahara and the southern forest zone— where in southern Mauritania the town of Kiffa now exists. The trade networks of Gana, Mali and Songhai extended as far as India, the Middle East, Morocco, the Iberian peninsula, all of the Mediterranean basin, and Europe. Wealth was based on the export of gold, slaves and ivory. The early presence of Islam in West Africa was limited to secluded Muslim communities, which linked commerce with North Africa. Trade between West Africa and the Mediterranean predated the arrival of Islam, but it had been Moroccan Berber Muslims in conjunction with immigrated Arabs from the East, who intensified the Trans-Saharan trade and were the major distributors of a new faith into animistic West Africa. Waves of immigration won the Arabs a considerable influence in the region, after the Islamic conquest in the seventh century.

Several factors led to the growth of the Muslim merchant-scholar class in the yet non-Muslim kingdoms of the South. Islam facilitated long distance trade, by offering useful tools for merchants like bookkeeping, credit, contract law, and information networks, as well as playing an important role as advisors to the non-Muslim kings of Gana. Beginning with the fifteenth century the lucrative Trans-Saharan gold-trade shifted from the desert to the Atlantic Ocean. Like all trading systems, commerce across the Sahara involved goods moving in both directions; from the Mediterranean to the Sudan and returning from the Sudan north to the sea coast, often with the same caravan. This trek of thousands of men and camels took forty-five days to reach the southern destination. The exports out of sub-Saharan Africa—mainly gold and slaves—rather than the goods traded southbound, gave Trans-Saharan trade its place in history. What Sudanic buyers received were rather average wares that had cost their sellers relatively little, certainly in comparison with what returned from the south, the finest gold-dust, which remained the most important commodity of this trade, about one ton per year between approximately A.D. 750-1500. The list of goods desired by and delivered to the south included fabric, weapons, horses, ceramics, perfume, coral, amber, spices (including salt), tools, copper rods, household items, and glassware, as well as glass beads. Yaqut, the well-known Islamic geographer, wrote in the twelfth century about merchants engaged in Trans-Saharan trade between Sigilmassa and Gana: “They went to the Sudan with salt, pine wood, copper jewelry and glassbeads, called nazm, that they exchange against gold.”

HANS ERNI WALL MURAL showing a Mauritanian woman applying powderglass placed in marine shells to bead core and another during the firing of beads. The woman in the background is manipulating the beads with metal tools while the beads are being heated on a sheet of metal over a charcoal fire. Courtesy of the Musée d’ethnograhie Neuchâtel in Switzerland, whose cafeteria houses these murals done by famous artist Hans Erni,

This quote sheds light on Muraqad (the Colorful, in Hassaniya) or Kiffas, the Mauritanian powderglass beads, that this article (and a book in progress) discusses. A thousand years ago glass beads were part of the merchandise sent trans-Sahara from Sigilmassa, Morocco, to the Gana empire, stapled first in Audaghost. At the southern edge of the Sahara, this town was located in close proximity to Gana where emissaries of both sides, Muslim suppliers and animistic customers, did their final negotiations, before the new purchases were transported to Gana’s courts and warehouses. Kiffa, a town among several others in southern Mauritania where Muraqad have been crafted for at least two centuries, is only sixty-five miles south of Audaghost. Its location is important to understand the connection between Muraqad from Kiffa (and other villages in southern Mauritania) and the beads Yaqut’s merchants transported to Audaghost. A design- and color-comparison between Yaqut’s ancient specimens and authentic Muraqad shows that the former are the precursor prototypes of the more recent Muraqad. But why were beads delivered to Gana from Morocco, when we know that the Levant at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean was the producer of most of the Kiffa precursors? Between the tenth and twelfth centuries—when Moroccan traders sent their breakable luxury goods southwards across the Sahara—the Fatimid Caliphate controlled a zone of northern Africa all along the Mediterranean, including Egypt and parts of the Levant, from where the fragile merchandise of their glass workshops went to Fes, then Sigilmassa, where it was registered, stapled and carefully packed for the long journey to Audaghost.

Muraqad demonstrate several striking and distinctive features: the brightness of their colors; their silky, shiny surface; their shapes, limited to six types; the laborious execution of the minutest design details and the intriguing control of the hand in keeping their geometry in balance. The finished bead—a hair ornament of religious significance—represents the finest of African handicrafts. Mauritanian women create their beads with just a few tools, the most important being their hands.

The equipment involves: mortar and pestle—often relics from ancient times, shards of a transparent glass bottle; monochrome beads (or scrap glass) in five different colors; a few little containers to keep the glass powder; a metal needle; a piece of sheetmetal and a bag of charcoal. The rest consists of water, gum arabic, human saliva, and, depending on the artist’s experience and secret knowledge, one or two more ingredients, that result in a glass-paste of five to six colors. The composition of the paste is crucial for the master beadmaker. It makes all the difference between the fine lines we see on the best beads and the sloppy work we find on certain old, but with all new specimens made after 1980. Colorful glass is crushed and washed various times, until the powder reaches a purity and delicacy beyond egg-timer sand. [Native Americans also engaged in washing the powderglass for their pendants (Smith 1981).] The colored powders, one by one, are heated to a certain degree on a hotplate, before being crushed to fine powder one more time. Then it is washed again and left to dry, prior to being kept in little containers.

Before the beadmaker begins to decorate the surface of the prefabricated, yet monochrome white bead-core, she individually mixes each of the five colored powders with drops of water/saliva and two additives all beadmakers consider to be their holy and god-given secret, not to be revealed to any outsider. One of the two secret ingredients is feldspar, made from broken amazonite beads crushed to a fine white powder and mixed together with the colors and a little water to get a cream-like paste. (As in ceramics, the feldspar functions as flux.) Depending on experience, chosen size, shape, and design, it can take the artist between two hours (lozenge-shape) and a day or two to complete a single polychromatic triangular, and also certain elaborate round and cylindrical types.

While it cannot be proven at this point, there may be a connection between enameling practiced by Moroccan jewelers in Tiznit, (using crushed glass beads as frit) and Algerian jewelers of the Grande Kabylie during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries; the wet inlay powderglass industry of Mauritania (starting in the nineteenth century); and the dry-form powderglass methods of Ghana (perhaps dating from the mid-nineteenth century). The map shows distances and spatial relations among these three areas of enameling, wet and dry-form (Kroboland) powderglass although Kabylie area of Algeria is not marked.

VERY RARE, PRECISELY MADE KIFFA POWDERGLASS BEADS except bright blue spherical bead lower right which is from Oualata. Three have re-ground Czech glass cores while the balance are on powderglass cores. Top right-hand corner bead has ground glass core and mimics a Morfia pattern, while bead below it has same pattern but a powderglass core. Solid blue triangular with chevron pattern is 2.5 x 1.5 centimeters. Courtesy of Thomas Sticker collection. Photograph: Alex and Thomas Stricker.

Designs on Kiffas are not a random choice of their makers. Neither decorated as a geometric filler, nor in a copyist tradition, nor had their natural Sahelian environment any influence on design and color. Patterns are taken from beads that have been produced centuries earlier, up to four thousand miles away from their West African birthplace and with the highest religious relevance for women in the Sahel. In many cases a design transfer onto Kiffas remains very close to the precursors; in other instances ancient designs are varied. The highly prized Morfia, for example, confirms that Mauritanian beadmakers make their own interpretations, where a round morfia turns into a triangular-shaped Kiffa, while all designs and colors remain the same.

Though the topic of Kiffa designs is too complex to discuss at length here, we examine further the morfia (in Hassaniyya: merviyye = mottled pate-de-verre bead), alternatively called the “Fustat fused rod bead.” Its Mauritanian counterpart or equivalent, the triangular-shaped polychrome type, is the centerpiece of a set with a red and blue bead of the same shape, that woman knot into their hair on the left side of the head only (the opposite right side has a carved white conus shell of hemispherical shape, representing fertility). The triangular glass bead often shows three rows of vertical eyes, plus three rows of zig-zags. “God’s protection for the tribe” is the message here.

The involvement of god – not necessarily Allah – is indicated by the arrangement of the five colors blue, white, red, yellow, and green (that green on Kiffas often, not always, appears black is due to the porous green glass attracting grease/skin oils which makes the green glass appear darker, hence black). Red, yellow and green are the first colors of the rainbow; the violet and blue that follow are hardly visible in a blue sky. The wonder of a rainbow, reaching earth from the sky in wonderful colors, was not only seen as god-sent, but also equivalent to rain, hence life for man and beast, especially in an arid environment. The three rows of eyes symbolize protection against evil and all kinds of bad forces. The zig-zags equate the image of a tree with the branching of the human race or its genealogy. Through branching the tree symbolizes the tribe and thereby the ancestors to whom respect and sacrifice must be given.

How were muraqad used? Aside from the dominating religious aspects of such beads, Kiffas are part of the artistic and elaborate hairdos (dafra) of Mauritanian women. The main characteristic is the structure of the Charvita (Hassaniyya = hair-crown) an unusual metal-frame with human and artificial hair wrapped around, that also serves as support for the woman’s mlahfa or veil. The whole composition sits on top of the woman’s head, but is connected and woven into her natural hair. Depending on region and the woman’s class and rank, the tresseuse or female hairdresser, uses carved conus shells, cowries, carnelian, and other stone beads, mecca-rings (khorb), crosses of silver and gold (boghdad) and various kinds of little glass beads. Among them, dominating yet still invisible to outsiders are the Kiffas under the veil. Lozenge and hemispherical, rarely conical types, are also sewn onto braided leather bands worn as bracelets on the left wrist.

It is not known definitely when the first Kiffas were made but I was lucky to find two of the old beadmakers who told me they learned their craft from their grandmothers, just as these grandmothers did themselves, which leads to around 1820-1830 for a date when Muraqad certainly existed.

MAURITANIAN woman beadmaker, showing her tools and equipment for the making of powderglass beads or Kiffas, drawn during recent expedition by the artist Sergio.

Comparative studies among the approximately nine thousand beads in my collection and the Thomas Stricker collection point toward a very limited amount of beadmakers being active during the first half of the twentieth century. A reliable judgment is naturally difficult, but I assume that no more than twenty-five to thirty women were engaged in the craft during that period of time or even fewer beadmakers, possibly no more than ten to fifteen with a distinctive style of decoration. A guesstimate on the total numbers of Muraqad made during the last fifty years of regular production (1925 - 1975) would yield approximately one hundred fifty thousand beads (plus/minus fifty thousand) as a reasonable number (based on twenty beadmakers at work over fifty years, with each of them making a single bead every other day) leading to a maximum of one hundred eighty-two thousand beads.

Making and wearing Muraqad is part of the old Mauritanian culture, which no longer exists. Even in remote villages and isolated encampments, one will not find women who care to craft or wear what Western collectors call Kiffa beads, based on speculation that these beads originated in Kiffa, a town of forty thousand in the south of Mauritania. A tragedy caused these beads to appear on the radar of bead collectors during the second half of the 1980s.

A series of severe droughts during the 1970s and early 1980s, followed by a rapid progression of desertification, was the primary cause, but not the only one to extinguish the main part of Mauritanian society and culture. The society of approximately two million in the late 1970s consisted of an equal mixture of Arab, Berber and Black African stock. About eighty percent were nomads, a lifestyle that is especially dependant on the arrival of the annual rainfall, to feed their herds with fresh vegetation. Those nomads—among them our Kiffa beadmakers, were already over the edge, when the rain failed to come a third successive year. Hundreds of thousands of animals and over ten thousand people had already died the previous year. Many more would share their fate that year. Miles long were the treks of those trying to escape from the south, in hope of finding food, water and a safe haven in one of the few cities in Mauritania’s north, where the arrival of international aid was expected. The Mauritanian Sahel had not experienced anything of this magnitude in its entire recorded history. When Mauritania would raise from the ashes, it was no longer the country it had been for almost a thousand years. Every aspect of life was affected, while the changes for the country’s art and artisans had the magnitude of an unwanted cultural revolution. Kiffa beads underwent the same revolutionary changes, as other fields of art, material culture and, ultimately, culture in general. Once the old structures of tradition had fallen, the poor country had no power, skills and resources left to continue or start anew on the previous level. The new versions of Kiffas, to reach market a few years later, were hardly more than a sad reminder of the past. 

By 1985 most beadmakers were dead. Other artists had not survived either; first and foremost not the Mallemin, the country’s independent blacksmiths. Surviving Mallem and beadmakers who had fled to the capital Nouakchott were now working as taxidrivers, security guards, nannies, or cleaning women, if they were lucky enough to find a job at all. The south, where most artists had been concentrated before, was now deserted. Artists were left without customers to demand the production of jewelry, tools and beads. Everybody was on survival mode in the alien environment of the city, far from their previous free, independent and happy life in the desert.

INTACT MAURITANIAN JEWELRY including leather bracelets with Kiffas, leather bag with strap decorated with Kiffas and carved conus shells and an ensemble of three triangular Kiffas from a hairdo. Strands of fine Kiffa or Muraqud beads surround the intact jewelry. The largest Kiffa would be around 2.5 centimeters long. Courtesy of Thomas Stricker collection. Photograph: Alex and Thomas Stricker.

Some artists had survived the years of drought, confirmed by a series of interviews I was able to conduct. Wearing Muraqad was no longer in vogue in this desert country and beadmakers were no longer needed—their skills became meaningless. Kiffa beads had fallen out of style and were no longer part of Mauritania’s traditional female dress code. Around 1985, when bead-dealers from Gambia realized the market potential of Kiffa beads, they became the first buyers and unconsciously started their worldwide demand. Given the beauty and the novelty of these beads, these early sales were followed by a growing demand, pushing the beads close to extinction only a few years later, in the only country that had ever crafted them.

Only years later did I gather enough information to make connections and link the various factors. What I transported from the Sahara to the Sahel since 1994—aside from occasional gifts for Hacen, my reliable friend and informant in Kiffa—was nothing but curiosity and questions I was hoping to get answers for. Without Hacen—the forty-year-old school teacher, whose father had given up nomadism around the time of his children’s birth and settled his family in a hangar or tent—I had been luckless in attempts to locate any of the few remaining old beadmakers. He not only introduced me to Sidi Mohamed Mahmoud, head of the tribe, but also to other influential tribesmen in town. During one of our many excursions Hacen, Mohamedou (the translator), Sergio (the artist) and I, with a driver, arrived at a little settlement some eighty miles south of Kiffa, close to the Malian border (a hot-spot of Al Qaeda activity). Photography was not allowed, but Sergio could sketch portraits and any scene of his choice.

Mohamed Mahmoud, the new leader of the tribe, had arranged for us to meet with Fatimetou mint Abdallahe. She had been a well-known beadmaker in her prime; now in her nineties, Fatmetou was not only in reasonable shape, aside from a beginning blindness, but also the respected center of her family. Fatima, in her simple dress (mlahf), a single piece of dark-blue fabric that is wrapped twice around body and head, wore neither jewelry nor beads. She learned the craft from her grand-grandmother when she was just twelve. Fatimetou confirmed the production-process Raymond Mauny had described sixty-three years ago (1949: 116-18), added a few details to it, but remained steadfast in keeping a secret the ingredients of the glass-cream recipe that allows her to execute the fine designs of old specimens. The aged beadmaker shared more tales of beadmaking during the good days of the craft between 1931 and 1974. She made beads for herself, but also for family members and anybody willing to pay her price, often in exchange for products of daily use: a little goat or some chickens for a polychrome triangular, or pieces of fabric, perfume, tobacco, tea, household articles, or raw-materials to continue her work. Her prices ranged from five to twenty-five US dollars, depending on various factors: the type of bead ordered, the time it took to craft them and the status of the person ordering it. Friday, the Muslim equivalent to the Christian Sunday, was considered the best day to fire the beads of her recent production.

Around 2006 I met Thomas Stricker, a well-known bead collector from Arizona. With an excellent collection of beads of his own, he shared my passion for Kiffas. Through time his collection surpassed mine. Both our collections combined contained possibly the finest assortment of the old specimens that became so scarce and expensive in the past few years.

We discussed daily every possible aspect of our specimens: their design, color, shape, condition, repair, patina, texture, trade, actual and alternative production method, religious aspect, the meaning of pattern and related dress code and hairstyle. In addition, we sent each other photographs of rare beads, copies of articles and papers and all relevant magazine and book clippings on the matter. We hunted the internet for photographs of Mauritanian women in traditional dress and informed each other when interesting beads hit the marketplace. This mutual exchange has increased both our knowledge.

MAP OF AFRICA with cities or areas important in the Trans-Saharan trade or of possible influence in development of Kiffa powderglass technology, latter marked by yellow arrows. Dotted lines link cities involved in trans-Saharan trade. Inset: Important towns in Mauritania. Graphic by Nataliya Busch.

In my planned, large format book, the study opens with beads of different materials, followed by jewelry that played an important role in the country’s culture as well. Worn side-by-side with Kiffas, most of these ornaments share the same iconography and serve the same purpose as religious artifacts. Imports from the Eastern Mediterranean are represented in the form of certain eyebeads, many kinds of folded Islamic glass specimens and ultimately Mauritania’s imperial regalia, the much desired morfia—most likely the invention and production of Syrian beadmakers, rather than the assumed product of al-Fustat, Egypt (Liu 2012). Not only glass, but other members of Mauritania‘s extended bead family are included, often as complete, authentic necklaces depicted in photographs and sketches. The preponderance of the volume is devoted to the Muraqad, known as the country’s most successful export of handicrafts. My collection has all six classical shapes: triangular, round, cylindrical, lozenge, hemispheric, and conical. Beads and jewelry, necessary tools and the process of beadmaking is presented in step-by-step sketches. In addition to photographs and Sergio’s sketches, I have been given unexpected access to a series of over two hundred unpublished black-and-white photographs taken during the 1930s by the prominent Neuchâtel Museum in Switzerland and showing local women in their traditional costumes, adorned with beads and jewelry.

The book is meant as a bulwark against the destructive forces of oblivion, completing a story that begun in 1949, when renowned French archaeologist Raymond Mauny published the production techniques of these then unknown beads. I hope it will serve as a reminder for future generations, inside and outside Mauritania, of the outstanding artistic abilities of these Sahel-desert dwellers before natural catastrophe struck and destroyed the Kiffa industry and much of their other artistic culture. 





Jürgen Busch
worked for over twenty years for a non-commercial television channel in Germany until 1999. Now happily unemployed since 2001, he writes for websites and local papers. He has a BA in Germanistik and has been working on a book about Muraqad or Kiffa beads of Mauritania, and has published on that topic, as well as the Lauscha bead industry. Busch has traveled extensively to Mauritania, as well as Morocco, the Sahara, India, and the Americas. He is married to Nataliya, a university-trained artist and graphic designer and a big fan of Alternative Rock, the German soccer league, world history, zero-point energy and extra-terrestrial life. He is the father of four cats


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