For some, the very mention of the word brings back nostalgic memories of the 'hippie' years of the sixties and seventies--but beads have actually been around for millennia. They have been and still are such a part of our lives, so deeply embedded in our history that it is difficult to remember the importance they have been to civilization.
People love beads. Beads are sensual to touch, beautiful to look at and wonderful to wear. Rooted in prehistory, beads are the oldest form of human adornment, found in every culture, no people without them. They are the earliest known expression of the human soul. Hold a bead in your hand, really look at it. Its a wonderful thing, a miniature work of art. Feel it, experience it, listen to it. Beads talk to us, if we can learn to hear what they have to say.
Beads are where it all began. The earliest beads date to 40,000 BC, made of shell, teeth and water worn stones that offered a handy hole to string on a piece of grass. The first manufactured beads, found in early burial sites, were shell, bone, teeth, plant resins, seeds--anything that could be shaped with primitive tools. Likely worn as talismans, with all sorts of attributed magical powers, beads have held for humans a fascination that has spanned the centuries to present day. They have been used to organize and symbolize societies. Beads have been used as barter, the standard units of value in market systems. They have been held to have curative powers, used as sacred objects, to bind marriages, adorn kings and the halters of donkeys. They play a pervasive role in almost all aspects of daily life, secular and sacred.
As technology grew, so did bead manufacture. Beads began to be made from stone, from metals (all metals known to the ancient world were first used for beads) and from glass. Beads were traded for thousands of miles, from China to England and everywhere in between. They traveled to the Americas with Columbus, who brought them as gifts, and later explorers used them as peace offerings, then as trade currency. European glass beads and semi-precious stone changed forever Native American beadwork as they were quickly traded from tribe to tribe all over the New World. Glass beads were traded into Africa for slaves, gold, and other commodities, becoming symbols of African status and wealth. Beads became objects of religion as well as personal adornment (our word 'bead' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for prayer, 'bede'). In Venice, bead makers were members of guilds
so secret that they were sworn not to reveal their methods of bead making, on pain of death. Known as 'paternostri',( literally 'Our Father') beads were worn during the Middle Ages only for religious purposes. Today finds them still in use as Rosaries and other prayer beads in widely diverse religions.
The fascination with those tiny round works of art goes on, and with scarcely a man, woman or child who does not use them, wear them, or give them, the demand for beads is greater than ever. Glass bead artists are creating fantastic, magical bead art. Bead jewelry is no longer just a string of beads but wearable art. Some people create with them, while many people just like to collect them like coins or stamps, except it's a much more challenging hobby, not so neatly laid out and classified as other forms of collectibles. There are so many of such diversified materials that it would take more than one lifetime to collect even a portion of them!
So what can you do with them? The obvious answer is jewelry. But there is more--and the limit is your imagination--there is bead weaving, both loom and off loom in hundreds of stitches, or maybe you could invent your own. You can knit, crochet, tat, macramé, appliqué, quilt, leather craft with them, sew them on your clothes, purses, boots, sculpture with them, make boxes, bowls, lampshades, baskets, holiday ornaments, key chains, picture frames, you name it, you can put beads on it! Not limited to age, sex or physical condition, beading can be enjoyed by anyone. Lots of men work with beads--make them, weave with them. Many of the finest jewelers in history were men. And if you're a fisherman, you can tie flies with them.
Where do beads come from? All over the world--Bali, Tibet, India, Turkey, China for silver, glass, bone, porcelain, enamel; from Japan for pearls and delicate seed beads; Czechoslovakia for glass, amber from the Baltic; the Philippines; all over Africa; semiprecious stone from Brazil, Australia, Russia, from countries all over the New and Old Worlds, the lists go on and on. If it can be shaped and a hole put in it, someone will make a bead out of it, somewhere!
Join the world of beads and you enter the realm of myths and mystery, of history and romance. To create your own individual, unique pieces of jewelry with them and to wear them, is to adorn yourself with the mystique of those most Wonderful Things.