Any Yoruba worth their name will tell you that Iyun means red bead. But what each person considers to be Iyun ranges from Made-In-China cheap plastic mass produced beads, to farmed-in-China dyed coral beads. Nothing Yoruba about these except their use and patronage.
Red plastic or ceramic beads from China or Asia, copyright Ali Express
Corals dyed red from China, copyright Ali Express
History of Authentic Yoruba Beads
However, the historical and authentic Iyun beads were traditionally either handmade glass beads or polished gem stone jasper or agate beads.The tools, skill and techniques of those ancient Iyun beads were all Yoruba, and the ores and stones were either native or from nearby West African sources.
(Jasper was also a gemstone used by the ancient Egyptians to make amulets)
Iyun beads were made alongside various other types of beads many centuries ago and because of the red colours, gained prominence as the special beads worn by royalty.
Different beads had different uses , as adornments and/or talismans.
Families were skilled and passed on their craft to their children. When the wars of the 18th century threw Yorubaland into chaos, many of the Old Oyo bead making families were enslaved and taken either to the coast or further North of West Africa. Some were taken to the then recently Fulani captured Ilorin where they were made to continue their art and also to pass their skills on to their captors
When they Europeans came they observed that the Hausa/Fulani would trade their quarried stones for products or garments and the captured Old Oyo craftsmen would polish the stones into Iyun beads that were called Lantana .
Another type of Iyun bead native to Yoruba is the handmade bead produced in the native technique from the glass formed as a by product of iron smelting activities. Yorubas all over the homeland created spiritual art made of various metals.
Handmade Yoruba Glass Beads
Are the traditional Iyun beads still available?
Its a valid fear that our native Iyun beads have been smothered under the mountains of wholesale imported “Iyun” beads forever. But there are people who still remember what the genuine article looks like and it was very exciting recently to have photographed some heirloom Iyun beads from a member of an Ijebu royal family’s stash.
The handmade glass Iyun beads are also happily still being produced locally and are more common and far more easily available, than the polished Jasper stone Iyun beads. One just needs to know where to look and also what to look for 🙂