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 according to the Atlantic, Africans acquired seashells and began using them as part of their economic activities, exchanging hands 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. We could argue the definition of "valuable" and ask ourselves who ascribes value to items and/or people. But that's a different topic.

Beads, according to The New York Times, later 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 with the deceased 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. You have 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 AB (aurora borealis) 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, and my personal favorites... seed beads, a generic term for any small bead. Not all are created equal.

Enter the delica beads... my favorites for structure. Invented by Masayoshi Katsuoka of the Miyuki Shoji Company in the 1980s, they're flat, smooth, uniform in shape and a joy to work with. 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.

Shop our collection of handcrafted beaded jewelry, grab a piece to compliment your wardrobe, and share that the next time someone says, "I love your earrings!"

1 comment

  • Irith Mashiah

    Interesting post about the history of beads. I enjoyed viewing the mastery of Diane Fitzgerald and Maggie Meister and learning about the “death beads”. Thank you!

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