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How I Choose Quality Gemstone Beads

The first time I set foot in a bead show, I nearly passed out. I couldn't imagine how anyone could possibly sort through that insane quantity of bling and retain their sanity. Those bundles of gemstones, twisted together in skeins, like yarn, look so scrumptious. They create an impression of mass and saturated color that takes your breath away. Being on a limited budget (what, is there such a thing as an unlimited budget?), I had to be a little frugal at that first show, but I didn't know enough to be picky. Blinded by the overpowering array of stones, I just chose what I thought looked good and could afford.

Well, this is not the way to choose your gems, I'm sorry to say. Here are a few tips that will help you develop your eye.

This bit of advice is going to sound silly, but in my experience, it's true: Gem merchants never hang "the good stuff" out in the open (and this is true at bead shows and in the wholesaler's showroom). If you see swath after swath of beads hanging on hooks or lounging on a tabletop, leave them alone. Look for the stones in the glass cases; or tell the merchant you are looking for better quality. Because it really is true that better quality means more expensive, you can be sure that that merchandise is not going to be within easy reach of you, the customer.

Pull one strand out and look at it solo, well apart from the others. You want to first check how deep the color is in the beads. Many gemstone beads are strung on wire, but some are also strung on a dyed thread which helps amplify the color of lighter colored stones. It's a little bit of an optical illusion you have to try to overcome. You want to choose stones that are intense and deep, as long as they are not dyed. Keep in mind that most stones these days are enhanced one way or another; generally they are heat treated or irradiated to bring out color. Dye, however, is something else, and it's not a good something else. Dye will make a stone look unnatural. Sometimes the dye will actually come off on your hands or a cloth. A good bead merchant will let you know if the stones are heat treated or enhanced.

Now look for inclusions (dark matter) and fractures in the beads. Poorer quality beads will have many inclusions you'll be able to see with the naked eye. They make a stone look -- well, more like a rock than a gemstone. Better quality stones are often described as "eye clean," meaning that if there are inclusions, you can't see them with the naked eye.

For larger stones, look at the faceting (unless you have such good eyesight that you can actually SEE microfaceting on smaller beads). Do you see unevennesses or chips? Are the facets crisp and sharp? Try to see in between the stones to check for broken areas. They can be difficult to spot in tightly strung strands.

Check the way the stones are drilled. If they are drilled evenly, they will hang "sympathetically" on their thread. If they are badly drilled, they will wobble and wave on the thread (as opposed to gyre and gimble in the wabe. Oh, sorry. Got confused with Lewis Carroll for a minute there).

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