History of Trade Beads

Materials used by Sugar Bear Girls

Trade Beads

Russian Blues: Russian Blue Trade Beads were actually made in Italy and Bohemia. These beads hold their popular name due to the extensive trading the Russians did with the Hudson Bay Trading Company for furs. Russian Blues were highly sought after by the Tlingit people, who are drawn to the deep blue color and reflective shine of the hand-cut faceted beads. Historically, one Russian Blue was traded for one sea otter pelt. Thus, one wearing a full strand of Russian Blues displayed wealth of skilled hunters as sea otters are difficult to hunt.


Red White Hearts: Red White Heart Trade Beads were made in Italy. These beads were highly sought after by the Haida people, who are drawn to the deep red color, a meaningful color to the Haida tribe. The Haida people were bargain shoppers, trading for Red White Hearts at the end of the trading season when the Russian fur traders were heading home and needed to gather as many pelts as possible, while “dumping” trading goods they did not want to return home.

Chevrons: Chevron Trading Beads are also known as Rosetta beads were made in Italy. These are some of the oldest trade beads that have circled the world many times over. Chevron beads are identified by the different layers of glass that make up the bead. Chevron beads are still highly valuable; generally, the higher number of layers (6 and 7 layers) hold higher value.

Others: Padre, Crow, Pony,

Shells & Pearls

Abalone: Abalone is Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian Bling-Bling. Abalone has historically been used to add shine and flash accents to art and regalia, even as jewelry. Abalone is local to the southeast Alaska waters, although has become harder to find in recent years after Sea Otters were reintroduced to the Alexander Archipelago. Sea Otters were nearly hunted to extinction in the southeast waters for the highly sought-after pelts, the finest fur in the world. Sea otters love abalone as a snack, thus finding local abalone is ever more difficult. Today, southeast Alaska Natives seek out beautiful abalone in jewelry, art, tools, and traditional ceremonial objects.

Mother of Pearl: Mother of pearl is the shell of choice in decorating regalia for the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Tribes. It is the shell used for the buttons boarding our button blankets/robes and frequently added to other regalia such as aprons, tunics, bibs, etc. This shell provides a beautiful sparkle when the regalia moves with the dancer. Mother of Pearl is not local to our waters and has historically been traded. The greater amount of Mother of Pearl displayed in art and regalia is another display of wealth due to the long distances for trading.

Pearls: Pearls were more common in the southern parts of the Alexander Archipelago, such as the Queen Charlotte Island. Thus, the Haida Tribe historically enjoyed these jewels, although if desired the Tlingit people would trade for any items available for trade. Today, pearls are a beautiful accompaniment to Mother of Pearl decorating our regalia.

Silver & Copper

Copper: Copper is a sign of wealth for the Southeast Alaska Native Tribes the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Most frequently, the effort is not a display of financial wealth, rather wealth of personal strength or skill such wealth of knowledge, language, love, etc. Historically, we had to travel long distances or trade from long distances to obtain copper. Thus, obtaining copper was difficult resulting in it being a costly item to own. Gold, on the other hand, was just another rock on the ground that really cannot be used for anything.

Silver: Silver became popular after 1st contact with Europeans. The first visitors to the area were fond of the silver bracelets being carved on the docks by master carvers seeking to earn money for their family. These bracelets were often carved from pounded silverware or silver coins. Today, silver bracelets are sought after not just by visitors but highly enjoyed by Alaska Natives themselves.


Mother of pearl, abalone, pearls, and copper are common materials used to accent and decorate regalia, as well as traditional ceremonial objects, such as rattles, bentwood boxes, masks, etc.