Anyone who’s been to Greece has seen men sitting in the kafeneions flipping a string of beads in their hands while they drink their coffee in small cups and solve the world’s problems. I would bet that every Greek man has at least one set of komboloi—one for everyday and one for special occasions, such as wedding receptions, baptisms, important family gatherings, or impressing a business contact.
Traditionally, komboloi beads were made from amber, precious metals or semi-precious stones, but now those with plastic and artificial resin beads can be bought in souvenir shops. Although amber remains the prized komboloi, many komboloi are made of faturan amber which was created by an Egyptian chemist of the same name in the 19th century for the purpose of making amber stronger. Faturan amber is a composite of amber powder, vegetable dyes, incense, and resin resulting in beads of a dark red, the color of a burgundy wine. I’ve read that some believe the recipe for Faturan amber was lost after World War II and attempts at recreating such amber has resulted in varying types of plastic, such as bakelite.
Where did komboloi originate? Some believe they are derived from the Greek Orthodox monks’ komboskini or knotted prayer strands to help the monks count their prayers. Other theories maintain the komboloi were fashioned after the Misbaha or Turkish prayer beads. Armenian tesbah are always 33 beads, the age of Christ at his death. Greek komboloi are always an odd number and usually sport a tassel. The beads can be strung with leather, satiny cord, or metal chain. Although komboloi are derived from religious prayer strands, those in use today are non-religious.
Although komboloi are traditionally used by men, modern Greek women are often seen flipping and twirling komboloi in urban outdoor cafes. Another version of komboloi is the begleri, a simplified komboloi consisting of a single string of two beads flipped back and forth between the fingers. While having a coffee in Venice one day, I observed a woman flipping a begleri as she and her companion sipped their coffee. I thought she must be Greek; however, as they rose to leave, I over heard an Eastern European language spoken between them.
Where ever or however one acquires a komboloi or begleri, the purpose is to quiet the nerves, calm the stress, and fidget with something to ease one’s anxiety.
To view a large collection of gorgeous komboloi, visit the Komboloi Museum’s website: http://www.komboloi.gr/index.htm