Glass beads and bangles were being made by humans as soon as they figured out how to melt sand into glass. Glass is a combination of silica (sand) , soda, and lime. The earliest beads consisted of a glob of melted glass wound around a clay coated rod. This was twirled about until it formed a fairly round bead. That was then slipped off the rod and allowed to cool slowly near the oven where the glass was melted. In some cases it was shaped into other things. The earliest glass objects that have survived to the present day are small objects like vials for perfumes, pendants, and of course beads.
Most glass in its raw state is pale green because of small amounts of iron oxide that occurs naturally in most sand. Early glassmakers soon found they could color the glass by adding traces of other metal oxides like cobalt or manganese
We don't know when or how it first started but archaeologists have found
early production sites throughout the Middle East. As early as 2400 BC.
glass beads were being made in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia (modern
Iraq and Iran). Within a few hundred years they were being made
throughout the Mediterranean, India and Europe. Some of the earliest
known beadweaving comes from the Old Kingdom period (2200 BC) in Egypt,
naturally enough it is a scarab similar to ones seen in the Harlequin
Archaeologists have found that early glassmakers were working as professional craftsmen in well organized production centers. They were making glassware like goblets, pitchers, plates and platters. Small vials and pots for cosmetics were also popular. At this time glass was a rare and costly luxury and most glass objects were found in palaces and temples, only rarely in private homes. Only the and powerful could own glassware.
Bead by Mark Lammi, necklace by Virginia Jurasevich [click image for larger view]
Some artisans were specializing in purely ornamental forms of beads and bracelets. This specialization led to experimentation. Egyptian "crumb" beads were made by fusing crumbs of multicolored glass onto opaque black glass beads to produce brightly speckled beads. These date to around 2000 BC. Nearly as old are "Eye" beads made by placing drops of colored glass onto newly formed beads to create spots of color or eyes. These were used as amulets to keep the 'evil eye' away. Glass beads were made to imitate different stones too. Red beads were made to look like carnelian or blue beads could be used in place of turquoise or lapis lazuli.
By Roman times, around 200 BC, glass making was a common industry and specialized factories could be found throughout the roman world. Several shipwrecks have been found to contain broken glass and glass ingots as both cargo and ballast. Glassware had become a common commodity and was no longer a luxury item. Glass was being imported from one end of the Mediterranean to the other so beadmakers and artisans could have access to a variety of different kinds of glass. Much of this was based on Egyptian and Phoenician glass makers on the southern side of the Mediterranean and Syrian glassmakers working in what is now Lebanon.
One legacy of all this commercialization was the Venice bead factories. Venetian glass beads were and are still famous for their exquisite and intricate use of colored glass. They have experimented and specialized for hundreds of years Artisans there are making millifiori beads to delight the eye. These may be based on mosaic beads made in Alexandria that date to 200 BC. All techniques that have been used for thousands of years and taken to new heights by these talented artists.
Beads through the Ages by Gloria Dale 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 Third World Beadmakers by Peter Francis Jr.
About the Author
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.
In Harlequin's bead library you will find information on the history of beads, how beads are made and how beads have been used throughout the world.
Many articles include a bibliography to provide you with additional resources. Many of the beading books referenced are available at your local library.
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Harlequin Beads and Jewelry specializes in Swarovski crystal, pendants and pearls, Czech glass and seed, Japanese seed and gemstone beads, plus a full selection of stringing supplies and jewelry findings.