Imvubu Newsletter

Teething beads now new fashion trend

© Victor, S. 2011. Imvubu 22: 4, 2 – 3.

Isn’t it interesting how fashion often reinvents itself? During a recent visit to Cape Town I noticed the sudden popularity of necklaces and bracelets made of pendant seeds shaped in the form of a tear-drop. The same grey-white or brown beads have been sold in Eastern Cape trading stores for many years, but are currently all the rage in bead circles and are sold at craft markets, bead shops, boutiques and national clothing stores, albeit often in dyed and dolled-up format.

The museum also sells the beads in our curio shop, Huberta’s Hoekie, but not at the ridiculous prices asked for them in boutiques and high-end shopping outlets. Having noticed the latest fashion accessory, I started wondering about the origin of these lovely beads. An investigation of the Anthropology bead collection confirmed that we have a variety of necklaces made of, at least in part, the same beads. The collection includes examples of the beads worn as a long plain necklace or adorned with small white, blue and black beads. Apart from their ornamental use, they are also well-known as teething beads or amatandjies (or amatantyisi) worn by Xhosa and Zulu infants.

One hypothesis has it that the teething beads were used by the Khoi who, in turn, introduced them to the Dutch infants they were nursing, which explains the term amatandjies; tandjies being the Afrikaans word for small teeth. The Xhosa supposedly, through a process of acculturation, adopted the term and the custom of using amatandjies as teething beads from the Khoi. The process of acculturation is, however, difficult to substantiate and no relevant evidence was found in the existing literature.

Mr Des Kopke from Port Alfred was able to identify the beads as Coix Lacryma-jobi or Job’s Tears in common nomenclature. Coix Lacryma is a coarse, erect, annual grass which grows to about two metres and is native to tropical Asia where several varieties are known to exist, but only the Lacryma-jobi variety grows wild in Africa and by default in the Eastern Cape. It is especially prevalent in the Transkei.

Job’s Tears’ cultivation in India, China and Malaysia goes back centuries and the droplet-shaped fruit from which the beads originate still plays an important role as a food source for human and animal consumption. The edible seed is a valuable grain and can be used in soups and broths; they can be ground into flour and used to make bread or can serve as a substitute for rice. They can be husked and eaten like a peanut; beer and wine can be made from the fermented grain and a coffee is made from the roasted seed. The plant’s various medicinal uses have also been recorded around the world.

Fashioning jewellery from the natural environment using teeth, bone, sea shells, gemstones, seeds and amber is a practical, age-old tradition. Seeds probably require the least amount of preparation for bead production, but they still need to be polished and pierced or drilled. Job’s tears’ seeds are remarkable in that they already have a perfect hole, ideal for threading into a necklace. It is literally ‘nature’s perfect bead’.

The hard-shelled beads are also used around the world in decorative work, as shakers and rosaries. In fact, rosaries made of Job’s Tears are so popular among the Portuguese that their term for Job’s Tears is Erua-dos-rosarios. Job’s Tears were also used for the making of rosaries in South Africa. The museum has a beautiful example in its collection. Unfortunately its exact provenance is unknown.

Job’s Tears is thus an incredibly useful and versatile plant used for human and animal consumption and for various medicinal applications. It is also used as teething beads, rosaries and now seems to be the latest South African fashion trend.


JSTOR Plant Science Coix lacryma-jobi Linn (family POACEAE JSTOR Plant science), Contributor: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Cf. as viewed on 23.02.2011; Authentic Arts by Jenny Hoople, Cf. as viewed on 23.02.2011.