Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Beautiful Beads, Handmade and Detailed from Kenya

By Deanna Collins

On the outskirts of Kenya's capital city, Nairobi, at the foot of the Ngon'g Hills, lays the farm immortalized in Karen Blixen's 'Out of Africa'. The title of the book and film comes from the Latin saying that translates as 'There is always something new out of Africa'. Almost thirty years ago, that saying came true again, with the birth of Kazuri Beads.

The colorful ceramic beads made at Kazuri on the old Blixen estate are now famous world-wide and are featured in the Gratitude Collection. The Gratitude Collection's Signature "g" Bead is made exclusively for the collection by workers at Kazuri.

In the 1970s an African-born Englishwoman by the name of Lady Susan Wood, as well as her physician husband made a commitment to the Kenyan people and their welfare. Lady Wood was founder of a small project to empower women, who had no other means of support. That one small project evolved into Kazuri Beads, which was a Fair Trade project for the empowerment of the local people.

The project whose name means 'small and beautiful' in Swahili began with two women finding themselves at a huge disadvantage. With now hundreds of needy people, many of whom are women, being employed by this endeavor, it is hard to believe it started with only two disadvantaged women and a garden shed. Now many with disabilities, single mothers as well as women left widowed by the Aids epidemic have an option to receive an income to help support their families.

The quality of the beads lies within the mixture of clay which is sourced from the foothills of the mountains of the Kenyan Highlands, then brought to the Kazuri plant to check for imperfections before they add feldspar and quartz to the mix. This process provides farmers in the area with an income as well.

Once this initial process is complete, the clay is then hand made into ceramic beads which bake in the sun prior to being fired at about 1100 degrees Celsius in electric kilns. Each bead is individually hand-painted and glazed before the 2nd baking period. With the meticulous quality control, quality clay and the skilled painting of each bead ensures the beads are flawless. Entire batches have been lost due to power cuts disrupting the entire process.

Kazuri beads come in a staggering variety of styles and designs: discs, tubes and even shell shapes. The colors are bright and vibrant or earthy and warm. The patterns and styles are innovative at the same time as they recall traditional designs. This is African jewelry but its style is contemporary and global at the same time as it has an ethnic, folk art flavour. Because each bead is meticulously hand-painted, each bears the artistic stamp of the individual maker. The names of many of the different beads evoke their African origins: Acacia; Benin Splash; Kalahari; Sahara Sand.

Women at Kazuri Beads do so much more than just make and paint the beads. They also put the beads together in finished products such as necklaces, bracelets and earrings which are then exported around the world. You can find beads applied to sandals or purses, and other items as well. The project has also been venturing out into making other ceramic items. - 16651

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