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Sunday, March 18, 2018
Article written by Tracy Stillman

History of Beading

For almost 40,000 years, human beings have adorned themselves with countless forms of beads, for just as many reasons. Primitive man used beads as protection from evil and for other spiritual rites, as did the Egyptians. Roman’s used them as decorations and sometimes as a form of currency, while modern man concentrated on their aesthetic value. Even today, Rosary, Worry (or Kompoloi) and Ottoman Tespih beads play an important part in religious rituals. Indeed, beading is not only a universal art form but one that has crisscrossed every continent and been influenced by almost every culture on Earth.

Some of the earliest beads were produced using animal bones, threaded with natural forming vines. While to us it sounds rather ghoulish, it is believed early man wore animal bones in the hope that the souls of the animals would protect them from evil. Any hollow bone that could be threaded with vine or fiber was used and once man developed tools capable of creating a hole in a particular item, almost anything could be turned into a bead.

Native tribes often used seeds or plant pods, such as nut shells, while others learned to make clay beads and decorated them with crude paints. Much later, the advent of glass forever changed our outlook on beading. Such was the popularity of glass, that the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and later the Hebrews, Romans and sub-continental Indians, all manufactured beads and lent their individual cultural influences to the art.

While the Egyptians are often credited with creating the first glass beads, the actual root of that honor is ambiguous. Still, the Egyptians made not only bead manufacturing into an art form but left a profound legacy to jewelry making. Today their ancient beaded treasures are some of the most admired and beautiful in existence.

They also discovered the processes used to make colored glass beads and created intricate, colorful designs, often combining these with beads made from precious and semi-precious gemstones and rare elements such as silver and gold. Such was the demand for beautiful beads that they became an important economic component exported widely across the ancient world.

Certainly, beads in ancient Egypt were inextricably tied to spirituality. Different colored beads signified certain states of mind, one’s status in society or represented celestial idols. Depending on the form of an item and what materials the beads were constructed from, ancient individuals believed that the beads ensured them anything from a place in the next world, to health and happiness.

During Roman times, beads were traded across the Empire and even as far away as Indonesia. The Romans used beads to make one of the world’s first calculators, the abacus, and like their Egyptian counterparts, these patricians sought out the most precious beads, such as pearls, to decorate themselves, hoping the revered goddess Isis would watch over them.

Even the fashion conscious marauders of the north, the Vikings, fancied themselves as bead artisans. What they lacked in manners, they certainly made up for in design and although their beads were possibly not quite as elaborate as those made by some of their counterparts, the Vikings’ use of color in glass beads was impressive. This, together with the arrangement of their beads in making amulets, necklaces and bracelets gives us fine, historic examples of man’s earlier jewelry making - some of which would not be out of place in today’s emporiums.

A beading renaissance occurred a few hundred years after the Vikings when European couturiers of the late 1800’s, caught on to the fact that beading aristocrats’ gowns and accessories could command not only attention, but quite a bit more money for their efforts! Intricate designs, some taking months to create, were sewn on everything from dresses to ball slippers. The most magnificent, using precious stones and rare metals, such as gold, were worn by royalty.

In the early 20th century, beads continued to play an important role in fashion in Western society. Victorians and Edwardians draped themselves elaborately in beads and embroidered beaded garments. One only has to look at a picture of the late Queen Mary to see that she had more than a passing interest in wearing beaded garments and strings of baubles – albeit very expensive ones! Even the daring ‘Flappers’ of the 1920’s embraced the use of beads in fashion. They were also the first to enjoy experimenting with the word’s first plastic beads, made from bakelite.

After the wars and with the true beginning of the plastic revolution, costume jewelry took hold firmly. While beaded fabrics became less fashionable, the market for plastic beads exploded. Far cheaper to produce and buy than other fashionable beads, they were not only affordable to more people but able to economically mimic expensive beads, such as those made from turquoise.

Today, many countries around the world produce beads and offer beaders a deliciously broad choice of styles. In fact, while it is possible to buy historic beads and beaded jewelry online, beaders also have the freedom to create items, borrowing from the many cultures which have contributed to what is the world’s most popular art.
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