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What Is Porcelain Wampum?

Original Wampum Sizes & Colors Previous Page in Article Series Next Page in Article Series Wampum Weaving Techniques

On This Page:

The First Porcelain Wampum

America's First Counterfeit's?

Today's Porcelain Wampum


eagle feather The First Porcelain Wampum
The vast majority of "wampum" weaving done today is with porcelain "look-alike" wampum, historically called "porcelene" or "porcelaine".  Some use beads made of acrylic artist clays, but these break very easily.  Others used dyed Mother of Pearl shell beads, but these fade to lavender or pink very quickly.  Why use "fakes" at all?  Because real wampum beads cost about $2 per bead for white and $4 per bead for purple.

In the late 1500's the Dutch contracted with glass bead makers to produce porcelain "wampum" beads for trade with Native Americans.  They tried matching the preferred sizes of shell wampum.  The predominant sizes of porcelain traded were about 4x9mm and 3x7.5mm.  Also to match the shell wampum beads, the principle colors made were white and dark blue (almost "navy"), but they also traded many black beads.  In the 1600's when the British took over Dutch interests in the New World, they also took over and continued the porcelain wampum trade.

Some have stated that only the white and blue were ever used by the Indians. However, in 1761 the British posted their "Regulation For Trade" at Fort Pitt to establish what and how much would be paid to traders and Indians for their goods and services.  The "Regulation" stated the value of one buck hide to be "100 black glass wampum beads".     [Top of Page]

eagle feather America's First Counterfeit's?
Native Americans at first refused to even consider using the porcelain wampum.  They regarded it as counterfeit, which it was.  They soon recognized, though, that it might be used for personal items, like leg ties, bracelets, etc.  Eventually the non-coastal Indians also used porcelain wampum to make treaty belts, as the real wampum was too expensive or unavailable to them due to all the whites between them and their wampum suppliers.  In Archibald Loudon's 1780's report about a family's capture by Indians near Fort Allen, PA, he describes the making and use of treaty belts.  He states, "...since the whites have gained footing among them, they make use of the common glass beads for this purpose." (pp. 89-90).     [Top of Page]

eagle feather Today's Porcelain Wampum
Today the most prominent porcelain wampum beads on the craft market come from India, China, or Czechoslovakia.  The India porcelain wampum beads are very irregular in size with broken ends, often slicing through the weft threads holding them on.  Both the India and Chinese blue beads are unauthentic in color by several shades.  The Czech porcelain wampum beads are fairly regular in shape, closest to the original size of about 3x7.5mm, and their blue, though not perfect, is only off by about one shade lighter.

The French are the only ones we know of producing the larger 4x9 sized bead, and they are the only ones making black.  Unfortunately their blue is more of a medium "lapis" color, like the Indian and Chinese.  The French are so sporadic, though, you can't count on them supplying the beads when you need them.  They'll produce porcelain wampum beads for a few months, and then, unannounced, discontinue making them for very long periods.  What can I say?  They're French.  Se la vie!     [Top of Page]

Original Wampum Sizes & Colors Previous Page in Article Series Next Page in Article Series Wampum Weaving Techniques

Copyright Jan 1999, 2015, Gary A. Reneker. All rights reserved. All text, graphics, programming, and coding are protected by U.S. and International Copyright Laws, and may not be copied, reprinted, published, translated, hosted, or otherwise distributed by any means without explicit permission from Gary A. Reneker.