I remember, when I first saw Czech bead as a kid. I liked to put my hands into the bag full of beads, like Audrey Tautou in the film „Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain”, when she put her hands into stones. My favorite color combo was the white-blue striped one. I had no idea how to bead, but I was collecting them for their colors. I sew a few of them on clothes I designed for my dolls.

Since I bead I am even more mesmerized by the beads, the different colors, the shapes, the cut as the sun reflects on them, and of course by the many finished jewelry designs made by  beaders. Since I have been working with beads for more than a decade I decided to tribute a full article to them.

How it began: chipping, grinding and polishing

I think we should be grateful to Mother Earth that gifted us with a part of our body like hands. The fact that we were able to use tools for cutting 1,5 million years ago is surprising. No wonder scientists found handmade BEADS DATED BACK TO 135,000 B.C. in Coratia, France, Kenya and Siberia. These beads were made of bones, stones, shells and even glass.

The beads reflected the mentality of people, their fears and beliefs, their struggle with their rude environment. Beads are among the earliest evidence of abstract thinking, since the early people thought they might protect them and give them power and beauty. It is not just they wanted to highlight themselves, but they even believed that they might possessed the animals’ strength and courage. It was AROUND 28,000 B.C. when they started COMPOSE NECKLACES. More beads of symbolism means more power.

up-left: 130,000-year-old Neanderthal Jewelry, Croatia, via AncientOrigins.

up-right Ostrich Shell Beads, via Flickr.

bottom-left Ostrich Ancient archeological shell beads of Nassarius kraussianus from Blombos Cave, Credits: Wikimedia.

bottom-right: 40,000 Year-Old Stone Bracelet , Denisova Cave, via www.messagetoeagle.com.

How it continued: ANTIQUITY

Beads became part of history

As the temperature changed the warm climate created new textures of new species of both plants and animals. With the climate changes people managed to settle down and from nomadic life they turned into food-producers. With possessing materials and starting trades these changes had a huge effect on craft specialization. BEADS BECAME MEANS OF PAYMENT METHODS and had different value for different products in Africa, Europe and Asia. Semiprecious stones, such as lapis Lazuli appeared in this trade, and the craftsmanship flourished in bead making, as well. Beautifully detailed beads were found in Royal tombs showing the fine artisan of this era. Beads were polished, carved, painted and gold-capped creating a fantastic design that is so specific of this times. Their many shapes, such as cylinders, disks, barrels or rhomboids, were easy to create, and so often the material just laid in front of them in the nature (shell, ivory, semiprecious stones).

In Egypt beads appeared on almost every clothes that covered the body and over the dead ones. Since they strongly believed in afterlife different quantity and quality beads were buried with their owner showing their wealth.

up-left: Agate bead from 2nd millennium B.C.

up-right Broad collar of Senebtisi (ca. 1850–1775 B.C.). Middle Kingdom, Egypt. Faience, gold, carnelian, turquoise. Falcon heads and leaf pendants originally gilded plaster, restored in gilded silver.

bottom-left Ancient Egyptian Faience Bead Mummy Mask.

bottom-right Syrian necklace of carnelian, agate, lapis lazuli, silver.

Glass beads

GLASS IN BEAD-MAKING APPEARS AND DISAPPEARS. Phoenicians were highly skilled glass bead makers and they gave a different highlight to bead making. Since they were leading traders they implemented designs and concepts into their technologies. During their travelling they were never out of materials, such as copper, African gold, precious stones or ivory.

Would you believe that “iridescent” beads were made B.C.? Romans created wonderful blue and green colors combed with gold. Or have ever read about mosaic beads made in the Hellenistic and Roman periods? Romans started to make awesome face mosaic beads from 100 BC – 400 AD, a miniature masterpieces of ancient glassmaking. No wonder this had a huge impact on from Italian glass making and till nowadays mosaic bead making of art clay or glass.

up-left: Roman face mosaic beads.

bottom-left: Earring | Ancient Persia. Late 5th to early 4th century B.C.; Iranian, Achaemenid Dynasty; Gold and faience.

middle: A Romas glass bead necklace. circa 200 B.C.-100 A.D. Photo: Christie’s Images ltd.

right:  Phoenician glass and Etruscan gold bead necklace. British Museum.

ASIA, details made to perfectionism

China and Japan

At the same time of the Roman glass bead production beautifully detailed beads appeared in Asia around the 1st Century A.D, or even earlier. China, Korea and Japan produced awesome beads of exquisite art. Though they were made mainly for domestic use, they slowly began to export them, specially jade beads. Asian craftsmen used precious and semiprecious stones and glass. They have a different approach to the beads, though. They did not give any superstitious thought about material or forms, however, later when Buddhism and other east religions were spread they had a huge effect on bead making, namely bead carving. It is an also interesting fact that they did not seem to be fond of gold. Artisans concentrated on secular objects for personal pleasure and adornment, including the famous Chinese eye beads. they used layered glass to create protruding eye-like motifs, often in complex geometric patterns. Chinese artist also used lot of jade for bead making, later it became a trade object of export products.

Later Chinese produced precious and semiprecious and glass beads into necklaces, what the foreigners called “court beads” or “Mandarin chains”. These necklaces were worn by high rank people.

In Asia the different periods created different beads, like the ancient kogok beads in Korea, or the same magatama beads in Japan. Archeologists found these beads dated to 18,000 B.C. these beads were made of bones, later ivory, jade, lapis lazuli, carnelian and glass. The legendary Japanese ojime (slide fasteners) beads were done to small details. The wonderful ojime beads on the tassel were sold for 5200 USD! in the US.

Middle: Exceptional Chinese glass eye bead from the “Warring States” period (481 – 221 BC). Diam. 2.54 cm | Collection: Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York. | Pg 313 “The Worldwide History of Beads”

Up-right: Edo and Meiji period antique glass “trade beads”


Beads in India exist from the Indus Valley civilization to the present. Indian craftsmen produced stunning beaded jewelry using precious, semiprecious stones, pearls and later copper, clay, silver, glass and enamel. Many tribes have their own characteristic design and material, like the Naga tribe. Indian bead-making industry remains strong. I found many traders offering wild range of quality semiprecious stones and freshwater pearls on different multivendor sites.

When it comes to Asia I must not forget about Tibetan or Nepalese amber beads. The memory of them warms my soul, since I have visited Nepal many years ago and I personally saw beautiful amber necklaces for sale.

They strongly believed that by wearing talismans in the form of prayer boxes or beads, dangerous spirits could be appeased or suppressed. Jewelry was therefore an important part of people’s dress. Turquoise and coral, both thought to have significant protective powers. Beads were also made of rock crystals, jade and pearls. They used metals, such as bronze, silver and gold, smiths developed their skills to a fine degree.

Famous dZi beads: these unique beads of etched or treated agate is revered in Tibet. They are mostly black and white, or white and dark brown. Shepherds and farmers pick them up in the grasslands or while cultivating fields. There is a mystery about these beads since the exact origins and dates remain elusive. All we know about these mysterious beads is that they are found in Himalaya only.

In Asia also the Pacific tribal bead works are worth to mention. Skirts and jackets, costumes and many utility objects are often decorated with beads.

up-left: a stunning amber necklace made of a central handmade Nepal amber bead with silver tribal caps, antique round discs Tibet amber, and antique look silver spacer beads.

up-right: Naga tribe traditional dress.

bottom-right: A superb mainly blue and red serue offered for sale at Michael Evans Fine Art.

bottom-left: dZi beads

AMERICA, the wild wild west

The beginnings

At least fifteen thousand years ago when Asiatic ancestors came across the Bering Strait, American Indians have been developing and adapting their cultures in both South and North America. Beads appear in the history in Southern Mexico date to 7500 B.C., and bead-making tradition continued throughout thousands of years. These beads are well preserved, for they were buried. Unfortunately major of the South American (Aztec and Inca) jewelry-making culture was destroyed by the Spanish conquest.

Beautiful beads were created from Jade, these beads reflected the motifs similar to the articulation of their stone sculptures. Much later metal also appears in jewelry-making. In ancient America, both gold and silver were sacred materials closely connected with the sun god.


In North America Indians were making and wearing beads made of bones, teeth, shell, pearl, stone and fossil. Imported glass beads, first introduced to North America native populations by Christpher Columbus in 1492, had a significant economic and aesthetic impact on Indian material culture. Glass beads and thin metal needles were a trade product for fur. Embroidery, needlepoint, lacework were brought to the New World by immigrants. American Indians used beads in two basic ways: stringing and beadwork. Beadwork involved appliqué on a piece of animal skin or cloth, or the creation of a fabric of beads by weaving them on a loom.

up-left: Mayan Jade Bead Necklace. Pre-Columbian, Guatemala or Mexico, Mayan, ca. 600 to 950 CE. A stunning necklace comprised of 15 finely carved jade turtle beads alternating with incised, rope style jade beads, and a vertical pendant incised with four maze-like glyphs – perhaps a variant of a mat glyph.

bottom-left wampum belt. The best-known shell bead was wampum, small, cylindrical, centrally drilled white and purple beads made primarily of the quahog clamshell.

middle: olibwe bandolier bag, large, heavily-beaded shoulder bags traditionally worn by men but sometimes by women and children.

right: Inca Chimu gold stud earrings.


This time for AFRICA

Beads as an essentioal component

Well, it seems that beads have a totally different role in life of Africa than the other continents. Bead-making processes developed in Africa only in the last 400 years with the trade routes passing by. There is a big difference in the different part of Africa due this continent is home to several distinct environments. The development of arts and crafts depended on many influential facts: whose power it served, beaded objects mainly served to distinguish rulers from ordinary people. Beads are an essential component of everyday dress, worn to signify their age grade, marital status, and station in society.

An enormous range of beads and raw materials for beads has been available to Africans for centuries. Like American Indians they used lots of organic materials: stone, nuts, shells, bones, tusk, teeth, seeds and ivory. Bead-making, however, remained limited in Africa. Most archaeologically recovered beads were manufactured in India. Beads were favored trade items with Indian, Middle Eastern, and European merchants. They exchanged ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn, palm and coconut oil, timber; pig iron and gold. Since the sixteenth century, glass bead-making in sub-Sahara Africa has been a tradition that has two basic techniques: traditional winding and drawing, and using ground powder glass.

Every day

With time passing by beads became essential elements of personal adornment in almost every African society; but how they were (and still are) obtained and used depended on the group’s social, political, and economic structure and on its role in the trade system.

Zulu beadwork has been valued as currency, as decoration, and as a marker of identity. Disingwayo the uncle of Shaka and Shaka himself, controlled the bead trade and monopolized not only the beads themselves but also the colors and designs available to groups within Shaka’s control. Beadwork became a status symbol and an important item of personal expression as well. Stylistic variations of beadwork such as pattern, color and color sequence indicate area or group affiliation. Colors and patterns take on more personally expressive meanings as in the case of Zulu “love letters.” Recently beadwork has become a symbol of political identity as well, with color and pattern indicating political affiliation. Instead of beads being worn only by the conservative, traditional members of the community, wearing beadwork is increasingly being seen as reclaiming a cultural identity.

up-left:  In Africa,  these Bodom beads are held in the highest esteem and usually only worn for celebrations, funerals, and are often buried with the dead.  There is much folklore about their magical powers as well.

up-right .Turkana Women  in Kenya adorn themselves with traditional jewelry and piles of beaded necklaces. The amount, style, and quality of jewels a woman wears determines her social status. Women also wear stunning animal sleeveless garments that are embroidered with polish ostrich shell to stress her look.

bottom-left: Zulu belt

Bottom right:  AMILEKE, BEADED ELEPHANT MASK These masks, with beads carefully embroidered onto cloth take the form of an important royal icon, the elephant, with its long trunk and large ears. The patterns on the front and back panels suggest another royal icon, the leopard. The display of wearing these richly embellished masks and other regalia at court ceremonies was the best evidence of the wealth of a Bamileke kingdom.


Back to EUROPE

In the Romans’ time

During the Roman Empire a network of bead manufacturers existed, local workshops developed with their own approach to bead-making (ideas, material) which created a highly recognizable characteristics. Beads of gold and precious or semiprecious stone adorned the elite, while amber, clay, stone and glass beads were worn by migratory and settled tribal people and by common folk. Though wealthy, urban Romans did not favor glass beads, which they considered “barbaric” decorations, glass beads never ceased being made and worn.

In the Byzantine Empire the luxurious jewelry of Constantinople was famous and admired  throughout the world. These beaded jewelries were found on mosaics that decorate church of San Vitale Ravenna. Beads made from precious stones, such as sapphires and amethyst, were cut in cabochon shapes and strung on gold links with naturally cut emerald crystals and pearls. Beads of metal or glass were frequently used as spacers to separate gold coins, for example, that had been mounted as pendants.

Bead Industry

By the fourth century, a glass industry also existed in Europe. Immigrant glassmakers established local workshops in the western Roman provinces in Italy. With Christianity the manufacture of a variety of religious symbols, amulets and beads appeared.

In the first centuries A.D. Europe was conquered by new powerful seminomadic tribes. Adornment was very important to these people. Since these people were wondering personal embellished possessions accompanied their journey. These jewelries had to be practical and compact not to harm their clothes. They were large and colorful, so beads roles and important part of their jewelry. The specialty of this period was the cloisonné, beads of gold decorated with garnet. As for inlay part they also used lapis lazuli, glass, amber, clay and enamel. The techniques developed (polychrome) with the stones coming into the continent. By the time Hun attacks, most Germanic tribes had a rich and established jewelry tradition characterized by geometries and abstract design.

Middle Ages

During the middle age, the use of jewelry was discouraged by the church. So beads mainly were used for rosaries. The word “bead” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon bidden (pray) and bede (prayer). The rosary is only one of several ancient ways used to count prayers. These prayer beads were different with each religion.

Medieval jewels, including beads, were talismanic and intended to bring supernatural benefits to the wearer. Until the end of middle ages bead-making remained a cottage industry. Later, with the global exploration, glass bead-making reappeared and an important art and industry.


From the Renaissance until the Industrial Revolution, beads occupied a minor place in European adornment. European glassmakers nevertheless mass produced huge quantities of beads which were carried by European traders around the globe.

up-left The Rosary: A timeless collectible – 15th Century Bavarian Filigree and garnet Rosary

bottom-left: wonderful Scandinavian viking gold beads about A.D. 100-200

middle: In the Byzantine Empire jewelry played an important role. It acted as a way to express ones status and as a diplomatic tool. In 529 AD Emperor Justinian took up laws regulating the wearing and usage of jewelry in a new set of laws, later to be called the Justinian Code. He explicitly writes that sapphires, emeralds and pearls are reserved for the emperor’s use but every free man is entitled to wear a gold ring.

right: Birmingham Museum: This mid nineteenth century beaded bag has rings on the handle where it would have been worn hanging from the finger, against the dress of the owner.


In this period for the bead-making industry the most important role played the  Venice, Holland, and Bohemia and Moravia (present-day Czech Republic) glass bead-making. When Europeans set sail, one the export products was glass beads. Small beads were exchanged to sugar, tobacco, and silver and gold bullion. Merchants had a huge profit on the glass beads with having the labor costs low (it often meant slaves).

Though glass making centers existed throughout Europe, however, Venetian glassmakers dominated the world market in volume, quality and diversity until the 20th century. Though glass bead-making started in the 9th century in the area, factories were located on the island of Murano in the 12th  century. Not far from Venice, but far enough to protect it from fire. Though these factories almost had no competitors (they had almost a full monopoly on the bead market), however, in the 15th century Murano glass making became a huge secret. Laws were enacted to prevent glass bead-makers to reveal their secrets. Beads typically were made by drawn or wound techniques, glass beads are classified by their techniques of manufacture. It is estimated that there were more than one hundred thousand varieties of bead types and designs produced in Venice and Murano.

By 1817, new process introduced into the bead-making industry included machinery to make perfectly round beads and the development of an extremely tiny microbead, frequently less than 1 mm in diameter.

up-left Chevron beads also called star or rosetta, these were sophisticated beads made from an early date,1500,by the Venetians.The Dutch also manufactured them in 17th century. World Jewelry Museum.

bottom-left  Antique Venetian Glass Trade Beads.

up-right  Seven antique Venetian millefiori glass trade beads in very nice condition from the African trade, early 1900’s. The beads measure approximately 7 mm in diameter and 13-14 mm in length.

bottom-right Antique Edwardian Venetian Fancy Mixed Trade Glass Bead Lampwork Necklace | Clarice Jewellery


Even in the ancient times

Finally I must mention a ready to use, nature’s ultimate gift organic bead, PEARLS. They are formed by glandular secretions of certain living oysters and mussels. In the old times people believed that they are from the brains of dragons (China), or came from clouds, elephants, fishes and oysters (India). A few hundred years ago scientists confirmed that by irritating the soft body of a mollusk with a grain of sand or a piece of seaweed, caused mollusk to surround the absorb the foreign matter with a secretion. Though all mollusk coat the intrusion, only those that line their shells with mother of pearl (nacre) produce pearls.

Early pearl jewelry was found dated 350 B.C. in Western-Asia. By Roman times, pearls had become an important part of adornment.  they ranked the pearls among the most precious of gems and paid exorbitant prices for ones of exceptional importance.

Middle Ages

Since in the Middle Ages jewelry was not favored by the church, gems enriched European ecclesiastical art. By the 14th century, pearls again became fashionable. Both men and women wore bead and pearl embroidered clothes at most important festive occasions. Even in antiquity, the princes of India and Persia were known to have had first choice of the finest pearls due to their proximity to the Persian Gulf and Sri Lanka, where pearl-producing saltwater oysters were found. Legendary pearl collections were owned by Indian royalty, such as Gaikwars of Baroda.

With the colonization of the Americas, Spaniards found  and controlled the American oyster beds. Freshwater pearls were also found in rivers, but few of them were of gem quality. In the 18th and 19th centuries most of the pearl crop came from the Persian Gulf, and a few from European and Chinese rivers.


Pearl jewels came fashionable by the beginning of the 20th century due its general simplicity in taste. Pearl prices had always reflected supply and demand. With the ability of cultivate pearls, the unpredictable search for the gems was replaced by an industry in which pearls were harvested in relatively predictable quantities. Pearl divers were poorly paid in the past, and many of them were killed, maimed by sharks, or blinded from the saline waters.

The culturing of pearls was actually known to the Chinese in the 13th century. Japanese also had success in cultivating them, and it was Mikimoto who first introduced his cultivated pearls in London on 1913. Today most of the pearls are cultivated, and 70 % of them come from Japan. Pearls are produced in other regions. such as South-Pacific, frequently in close association with the Japanese.

Here are some Pearl Quotes that every pearl lover should know:

Why wear one string when you can wear two. – Coco Chanel

True beauty is measured by the number of pearls within you and not around your neck. – Suzy Kassem

Pearls are always appropriate. Jackie Kennedy

The pearl is the queen of gems and the gem of queens. – Grace Kelly

The world is your oyster, it is up to you to find the pearls.- Chris Gardner

What is important with pearls, is the woman who is wearing them. – Anonymus

up-left: The famous mosaic in the sanctuary of San Vitale at Ravenna shows Justinian (483-565) with his head covered with a jeweled cap

up-right: Cygnet Bay Pearls – Australia

bottom-left: pearl divers

bottom-middle: Anna Boleyn portrait

bottom-right: This famous Baroda necklace sold at Christie’s Auction in New York City for $7,096,000.



Most of the inspiration and information comes from: Lois Sherr Dubin: The History of Beads














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