Beads have been made in Bohemia since Roman times, but it was an intermittent industry. After the collapse of the Roman empire, about 400 A.D., there was little demand for luxury items such as beads in Europe. By the 900's locally made beads were placed in some tombs and by the 1200's glass factories were turning out a variety of glass products, but these were mostly household wares with only a few beads present. Several small factories were turning out beads for rosaries, but it was not until the 1550's that a major glass industry was founded in the cities of Jablonec, Stanovsko, and Bedrichov (modern Reichenberg) in Bohemia (in the current Czech Republic). These glassmakers were mostly decentralized cottage crafters making beads for use in larger, centralized, jewelry factories.
The Napoleanic Wars of the early 19th century changed the political face of Europe, with both Bohemia and Venice added to the Austrian Empire between 1815 and 1866. Competition between these two regions had always been fierce. Becoming part of the same empire did not change a thing and competition between the two regions continued to be as fierce as ever. In the face of this competition, Czech bead makers tried something new that allowed them to expand their markets.
This was the work of Czech 'sample men' who traveled worldwide. It was a novel experiment. These men traveled from country to country asking people what kind of beads they wanted. Then, they returned to Bohemia with sketches and descriptions of these new beads. It was an astounding success. The demand for beads grew and production increased. At this point, both Czech and Venetian beadmakers were turning out similar products, but close examination has shown a variety of differences both in style and use of color. These are discussed in Peter Francis Jr.'s book The Czech Bead Story.
The 19th century was also a period of industrial innovation. New machines that could produce a vast variety of beads were developed, depending on a process of pressing molten glass into a heated mold. This meant that thousands of identical beads could be turned out quickly and inexpensively. The only limiting factor was process of manufacturing the molds, which was both difficult and precise. Cottage crafters were given several molds for each bead press and turned out beads to order for their local factory. Venice continued to concentrate on handmade glass beads, while the Czechs became masters of pressed glass. Both regions, however, remained innovative and continued to perfect and improve every form of bead making.
Political upheaval seems the normal state of affairs in Europe. In the early 20th century WW I not only disrupted, but nearly collapsed the bead making industry. After the war, Bohemia became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia and by 1928 the Czechs were the largest bead exporters in the world. Then came the 'Great Depression'. Bead production did not recover until the mid 1930's. This was soon followed by WW II and another disruption. In 1945 the communist regime in Czechoslovakia nationalized the entire glass making industry. Beads were not a part of the official party line. It went into decline as a result. This changed in 1958 when the need for hard currency caused the communists to look for goods to export in exchange for cash.
Today the Czech Republic is making and exporting large numbers beads. Once again the Czechs are in the forefront of the world bead market.
Beads of the World by Peter Francis Jr.
Glass 5,000 Years edited by Hugh Tait
The Czech Bead Story by Peter Francis Jr.
The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present by Lois Sherr Dubin
Beverly Fernandes has been beading since 1969. Since moving to Eugene in 1998 Bev has worked primarily with beads, her first loves have always been her husband John and beadwork. Bev works primarily with Japanese Cylinder Beads known as Delicas. They come in over 600 colors and textures, so Bev can practically paint with beads. Most pieces are worked in peyote or gourd stitch, a form of bead weaving that has been found in Egyptian tombs and has since been practiced by nearly every culture that has worked with beads. Beverly has a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology. She studies archaeology and bead history.