A History of Beaded Jewelry: Ancient to Contemporary

A History of Beaded Jewelry: Ancient to Contemporary

What exactly is a bead? One definition offered by Merriam Webster is "a small piece of material pierced for threading on a string or wire (as in a rosary)." Throughout history, they've been used for spiritual/devotional purposes, as worry beads, gaming beads, for medicinal purposes, and as a form of currency. They're considered to be one of the oldest forms of trade in history.

Somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa. Tens of thousands of years later, Africans acquired seashells and began using them as part of their economic activities, exchanging them for other things of value. Bead trading may have been one of the reasons why humans developed language.

These early beads would've been made from bones, stones, horn then eventually morph into modern day glass beads. The site of Igbo-Ukwu in Nigeria is one of the earliest discovery sites for glass beads. Mass production of said beads is attributed to Milano, Italy, home of the millefiori bead, which derive their names from mille, meaning thousand, and fiori, meaning flowers.

One of the earliest production methods of glass beads combined soda, lime and silica heated to create the base glass, possibly molded around a small stick or straw. Added to this were mineral deposits to alter its color.

At one point, beads became so "valuable" that they were exchanged for human lives in the slave trade. It's said that larger beads were reserved for trading male slaves, smaller beads for females.

Beads became a status symbol initially reserved for kings and priests. Social status would be determined by the quality, quantity and style of beads worn by the individual. They were also included in their journey to the afterlife. This along with their favorite foods and every day items.

Modern and contemporary beads, specifically seed beads, come in a variety of colors and finishes. These include the color lined, the transparent, the translucent, the opaque, the matte, the silver-lined, the copper-lined, the bronze-lined, those with luster finish, the aurora borealis (AB) beads. Your options are as boundless as your imagination. While all beautiful, some have drawbacks, especially the lined seed beads which may lose their finish due to threading. They come in various shapes, round, square, oval, tube.

Enter the delica beads... my favorites for structure. Delicas are flat, smooth, uniform in shape. While you'll never be able to create an organic spiral piece using only delica beads, when architecture is important, or when you're after a piece that can flow like a blanket, they're ideal. Keep in mind, the threading used also plays a major role in the final outcome of any beaded creation. Thread tends to flow, wire offers resistance.

No discussion of beadwork would be complete without mention of the Native Americans. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, they created their own beads, decorated their clothing with dyed porcupine quills, used them to create jewelry, decorate their homes, utilitarian goods, among other things.

Fast forward to contemporary jewelry, two beaded jewelry artists whose work I admire are Diane Fitzgerald and Maggie Meister. The goal is to achieve that level of mastery with consistent practice, but with my own flair.

These days, you'll even find beads made with the cremated remains of a loved one... transformed into a "gem-like stone."

In conclusion, from a shell in Africa, to what are sometimes called "ash glass" or "death beads"... beads have a long, colorful history and an evolving future.


Like this post? Stop by and read "An Exhaustive Guide to Pearls: More Than You Ever Wanted to Know." 

I'd love to have you as a customer, head to the online store and shop for handcrafted beaded jewelry by beYOUteous.

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