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The Wonder of Glass Beads

There is archeological evidence of glass-like beads dating back at least 3000 years. The earliest examples are of an Egyptian bead made from a form of ceramic (not clay) that when fired produced a bright blue-green surface. The faience ceramic was made from crushed quartz, sand, calcite lime and alkali which came together and produced the copper pigments it is known for. The end result did not bear the transparent qualities of the glass beads we know today, but the luster of the surface and the color the mixture produced a reflective and delicate product that gave the impression of glass to the modern eye.

When true glass was finally being produced (on purpose), wound glass beads were the first to be made. The method is simple; glass is heated to the point of pliability, laid down and wound around a steel wire. The wire is coated in a runny clay slip to prevent the glass from adhering to the wire while it hardens. From this point different tools and materials may be used to create various effects such as shapes, patterns etc. Even small dabs of colored glass can be added while the glass is still hot.

Drawn beads are another very old form of glass beads. In fact, there is evidence of drawn glass beadmaking facilities dating back to the 2nd century. The main method of making drawn glass beads involves using a ball of hot glass and pulling a strand out and around it creating a glass tube. Some cultural differences in the method include the use of a hollow metal tube or a tool called a puntile. The common denominator in drawn glass beadmaking was the skill required to pull the strand in such a way that a hole was created while drawing the 'cane' of the bead as long as possible without breaking. Once the cane was drawn out, it could be cut into individual beads. Seed beads were, and are made in such a way; however today it is done mechanically.

Molded beads are very common, and today often associated with low cost of labor and low quality product. While that may be true of some manufacturers, there are a lot of very lovely beads produced from the molding process. Thick rods of glass are heated to a molten form and fed into a machine that essentially stamps the glass. A needle pierces a hole in the middle, the beads are rolled in hot sand to soften the edges and out pops a molded glass bead. Particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries the Bohemian glass bead industry was well known for its practice of copying expensive beads through the molding process. They made ornate glass beads via a cheaper process, thus making the same desirable designs available to those who could not afford the more pricey alternative.

Lampworked glass beads are a type of wound glass bead, but with an extra step involved. During the hard economic times in of the 19th century in Europe it was not uncommon for the lady of the house to take on extra work she could carry out in the home. Some women chose mending or sewing, other did laundry and still others chose lampwork beadmaking. After the wound glass beads are produced in an industrial factory, they were shipped off to home-based piece workers. The ladies would use an oil lamp to re-heat the core of the bead and add fine threads of colored glass as decoration, thus the name 'lampwork beads'.

Dichoric glass beads are the glitz of the high end glass art bead category. More and more designers are seeking out these iridescent glass beads for their unique colors. Wound or molded glass beads have a thin layer of metal fused to the surface of the glass, producing the trademark metallic luster. Any manner of coloured metal may be used, but if it is heated for too long it simply turns silver and burns off.

Glass beads can be so diverse and so luminous in their use that avid beaders often treat them with pronounced reverence, much like a collector would handle a fine work of art. Considering the length of history inherent in glass beads, there is a certain amount of respect required. Lampworked beads especially are not just pretty pieces of adornment, they speak of the sociological and economic struggle of the 19th century European homemaker. The wonder of glass beads is not just in its beauty, it is also in the history of its existence.



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