So how old are beads? – from the earliest historical account the Egyptian beads made it to the Scandinavia.
Now you might be thinking that these were carved bone or clay or wooden beads but think again these were cobalt blue glass beads, crafted by the Egyptians using the tools available at the time (around 3,400 years ago) by the artisans of pharaohs and Mesopotamian rulers as reported by J. Varberg et al. Between Egypt, Mesopotamia and Scandinavia: Late Bronze Age glass beads found in Denmark. Journal of Archaeological Science. Published December 13, 2014.
This is fascinating and mind-blowing, to say the least. Testing done on these beads found in the graves sites has confirmed their age. Now clearly this is mind-boggling but wait more studies have got their origins even as back as 30-60 A.D. More discoveries of not actual beads but raw materials used in making glass beads have been discovered in Rhaetian settlements in Bavaria and according to researchers, these materials did not originate locally.
These early glass beads were actually made from soda-lime glass and again due to their soda like origins, it has been assumed that their true origins are probably from Egypt due to the presence of Soda lake like Wadi El Natrun in Egypt. More evidence found in Great Britain like the commonly found Aggry beads in Africa has been found again in the grave site suggesting their origins in ancient Egypt.
Now fast forward to the modern glass beads making centres of the world and you see the artistic workmanship continue with dazzling colours, styles and contours. From Swarovski crystal beads to Venetian, Lampwork and the factories in Europe producing Czech, Preciosa beads. It is often difficult to ascertain the generic glass beads and their origins due to globalisation and the modern day machine able to re-produce beads of any kind with carefully programmed CNC machines.
However, you can still source authentic, often handmade and designed by actual humans using the centuries-old techniques only refined and sometimes with the help of a machine. One trip to the souvenir shops in Venice will surprise you with the handcrafted Murano glass, ornate chandeliers, vases and swirls of glass beads originating from the Island Murano where the tradition is still alive.
New age artists like The Attombri brothers and the Sent sisters are either using these handcrafted glass beads in making jewellery for brand names like Dolce & Gabbana and present now as art. In particular, the Sent sisters who have revived the art of ancient glassmaking & beads who are making these beads in their grand father’s old factory which I suppose always helps to have access to a full-fledged factory.
Only 10-20 years ago with the mass production of artistic beads and crystals, cut with the laser precision machine like the one used by Swarovski which are used extensively in making some of the stunning jewellery, the prediction was that the designer glass beads will vanish and with it the centuries-old tradition of making hand made artistic beads.
However, as of now, jewellery designed with hand made beads continues even in the oldest of beading cities and regions like Murano – Costantini is one of the last remaining makers of conterie ( small beads) which has been revived after it shut down 20 years ago. Similarly, factories in Desna and the rest of the Bohemian region are flourishing and doing brisk business even facing greater pressure from the Asian manufacturers.
The Preciosa factory operating in a small village of 3000 and employing around 900 people is still engaged in using the old traditional techniques but a couple with modern ideas and it is this fusion of the old and the new that gives their beads such an edge over exclusively machine cut beads. Though Preciosa has survived and flourished, many of the smaller bead making facilities in Bohemia is not so lucky like the Fipobex, a small factory based in Pencin not too far from Desna (Preciosa).
Fipobex once employed over 120 artisans and bead making specialist who specialises in the art of fusing glass rods and using heat torches to craft hand made glass beads – an art now mostly confined to the individual Lampwork designers and their studios. Fibobex still operates but with a handful of workers with their old machines.
The old romantic hand made glass beads making tradition has been under threat for some time but yet it has found a way to withstand the onslaught and manage to thrive in niche markets keeping the tradition alive. Many of the latest fashion jewellery made from such wonderful beads has made its way to the catwalks of Europe and boutique jewellery stores around the globe in particularly the jewellery stores who manage to make each jewellery items in their own studios, still appreciate the beauty, artistic flair and the centuries-old tradition which comes with it.