Most modern bone beads are made from cow or sheep or camel bones and are a byproduct of the food industry. In fact they have always been a part of the food chain. Today most bone beads come from Indonesia where they are made by made hand in small factories and private homes. Bone is a durable material that is hard enough to wear well, but soft enough to be worked with nearly any hard tool. Modern bead makers have the advantage of steel tools and powered machinery. This makes bone beads both abundant an inexpensive.
Processing raw bone into workable material is a simple process, but it is smelly and dangerous because on the chemicals involved. First the bones are cleaned with soapy water and a stiff brush. All the meat, gristle and ligaments have to be removed. Then the bones are boiled in a dilute acid either hydrochloric or sulfuric, until the bones lose the greasy texture of raw bone. When this is done the bones are rinsed thoroughly and dried. The next step requires soaking the bones in a dilute solution of bleach. This removes the last of the protein gelatin that can decompose and rot. Old bone that is poorly processed can have a very strong unpleasant aroma. The last step is to rinse the bones in clear water and dry them thoroughly for several days. After the bones are processed they are cut in small workable pieces. Then they are carved into the shapes we are most familiar with; small pierced carvings, round and oblong beads, pendants and nearly any other shape. After carving the beads can be stained or dyed.
Bones are an organic substance made of calcium phosphate and gelatinous protein compounds. It lends itself to bead making very well. Bone has long been used as a substitute for ivory and at first glance the two look similar. There are some very basic differences. The most obvious is that bone is heavier than ivory. Another is that upon close examination bone and ivory have very different appearances. Bone shows concentric layers and a dry appearance. Ivory, on the other hand, has a crisscross pattern and can be polished to a deep luster because the natural gelatin has not been removed.
Today bone beads are popular for trendy bead amulets, and some of the favorite shapes include hairpipe for American Indian designs or carved with traditional designs for primitive motifs. Since these beads are still hand carved, each one is unique. While most bone beads are cream colored, brown or black they can be found in every color of the rainbow. Many are stained black or brown to make them look old. Others may be colored with aniline dyes, but natural is the most popular color.