Beads in history

  People have been making beads since 100,000 BC. A small amount of ancient shell beads have been discovered in caves on Mount Carmel.  Beads in greater quantity were discovered in Africa and are at least 39,000 years old. Ostrich shell beads were made in Africa in the Rift Valley due to the abundance of  the ostrich shells. Beads were used as adornment as early as 38,000- 26,000 BC. Beads were shaped by chipping, grinding, and polishing, then perforated by turning a sharp pointed stone tool. Most beads of these early time periods were shell or teeth, because they were soft enough to shape and drill.  As humans progressed and gave up their mostly nomadic life, beads were made, collected and used for trade. Stone beads were made in greater quantity by 4000-2000 BC.  Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, were all producers of ornate beads made from stone. The Egyptians made amulet beads to bring safety, strength and protection.
  Beads have been used throughout the world as talismans, status symbols, religious articles, and a means of trade. Because the ancient beads are all handmade, they represent small insights into the people and cultures who created them.  What was important to them, what material was close at hand for making beads. And why would they choose to adorn themselves, when just surviving took all your time and energy.
  Most of the beads on this strand were created in Southeast Asia around 500 AD. Every bead was made by hand. Where have these beads traveled? What story did their creator want to tell?
  This is a strand of ancient Hebron beads. They were drawn when the glass was hot. That is what gives them the lines or grooves that are still visible.
  These carnelian beads are from around 1200 AD. Each bead was carved, and drilled individually. The larger bead still shows the marks of someone’s tool used in the shaping. Such a change from the mass produced stone beads of today.
  Bead making progressed as quickly as the people who created them. Stone, shell, bone, glass and eventually  metals have all been used in the making of beads. Glass bead making opened up a whole new world of colors and design. The Egyptians began making glass beads in mass quantities in 1500-1300 BC. I can only imagine this started a glass bead revolution of sorts, with the knowledge spreading throughout the region and eventually into Europe.
  European’s, and more specifically the Venetians, dominated glass bead making for hundreds of years.  
While the Venetians dominated bead making until the 20th century, other countries such as Holland, Bohemia and Moravia also produced glass beads.
The fancy Venetian beads were made by taking hot glass and winding it around a wire or mandrel. While the glass was hot, it was rolled onto a surface that was flat, grooved or contoured. It was then heated again and smaller pieces of hot glass were trailed or applied in various colors and patterns. It was then paddled or shaped to force the new glass into the bead.  In 1468, drawn beads were made, providing a much faster technique, and the ability to create layered beads, such as chevrons. 


In 1490 the Venetian glass maker’s guild came under law stating that none of the bead makers could divulge the secrets of bead making, or set up shop elsewhere. Or risk death. By 1615 the cottage industry of making lamp wound beads was beginning in Venice. Each bead was individually created over an oil lamp. In Venice and Murano 100,000 different varieties were produced.


Rare ghost beads, and turquoise blue feather beads

The millefiore bead was first created in Western Asia around 1000BC. The Venetians reintroduced this technique in the 1800’s. They are made by taking patterns of colored glass, cutting it to the size they wanted and pressing each piece onto a core.

 From the 1500’s through the 1800’s glass beads were carried all over the world and used as trade. In the new world, glass was unknown, and therefore was seen as rare and precious. Beads were traded in North America for furs and in Africa for ivory, gold, and slaves. Because the Venetians could make the beads so inexpensively, they reaped a %100 return on profit.


In the case of African trade, ships would leave Europe loaded with barrels of beads, for trade and also to act as ballast. The beads were off loaded in Africa and the ivory, gold, and slaves would take their place. This is why so many of the antique trade beads have come from Africa. I have heard stories of beads washing up on the beaches, like sea glass.

In North America, the Native Americans saw the beads as a new way to express themselves artistically. Pony beads, and later the smaller seed beads, were sewn onto everything from bags, clothing, and ceremonial items.  Traders, trappers and adventurers carried beads with them as they crossed the new continent. They were then able to trade with the Native Americans for food, information, and more importantly safety. When Lewis and Clark made their epic trek across the unknown west, they carried beads with them. They remarked however that they should have brought more blue beads, since that is what the Indians preferred. Blue represented the sky to them.
So as you look over the beads on this page, think about the history and the journey they have made.                            
 A lot of the information in this post was learned while I read the book “The History of beads” by Lois Dubin. If you love beads and the history behind them, I highly recommend this book. 


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