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History of Bead Crafting

Updated on August 8, 2015

Bead making is truly an ancient art form and have probably been being made ever since the discovery of fire. Historians believe making glass beads has been practiced for at least 5,000 years. Ancient Egyptians used a method known as "core-forming."

They held pieces of glass over a flame with a metal mandrel and as they heated and became pliable, they could wrap it around the mandrel forming intricate ornaments. They also learned to add pigments to the glass to create beautiful, colorful beads. Apparently the Egyptians placed a high value on them since they were placed in burial tombs.

Some of the earliest mass-produced beads originated in India. In Nigeria, beadwork has been found dating back to the 8th and 11th centuries and in Spain, from the 13th century. There are many types and ways to make beads, each taking an article to explain. Therefore, this one will concentrate only on basic history and uses.

Beads were not always made of glass. For a long time, pearls were very popular. Ancient tribes strung hollow animal bones, sea shells, seed pods, nut shells, clay and even animal teeth on sinew, leather or anything which could be used as a string. Beads were also made from wood and today some craftsmen use porcelain.

Seed Beads

Stringing is considered to be the first form of beading and still is today. Beads looking like small chips were made from moonstone, jasper, mother-of-pearl or agate. Other cultures were quick to jump on board the bead making band wagon. The abacus with its strings and beads can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, although the Chinese are credited with making many refinements.

Romans traded their beads and even Celts and Vikings were accomplished bead craftsmen. Beads were used as adornments on necklaces, amulets, and bracelets. In some societies they were used in religious ceremonies.

In America today, Native American bead art is very popular. Their exquisite use of turquoise can be seen in watch bands, belts, pendants, necklaces and other jewelry. In their past histories many tribes had sacred orders of women quilling societies. The products they made were worn by anyone who wanted them. The value was placed on the prayers and incantations put on them…in stark contrast to Western society which places value on finished products.

Before World War II, most bead production was centered in Eastern Europe, especially around Bohemia, although Germany, Italy and France were also noted producers. Most were made of glass, but some from metal, usually aluminum or steel. These were commonly called steel cuts. However, many factories were converted or destroyed during the war. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, many of these vintage beads were discovered and are now valuable and hard to find.

Bead crafters make jewelry, necklaces, bracelets, earrings and anklets. Beads can be sewn onto leather, accessories and household items like lamp shades. Seed beads are also used to make many of these items. They are uniformly round shaped, ranging in size from under a millimeter to several millimeters and is a term generally used to describe any small bead. They are mostly used for loom and off-loom beading or simple stringing, or spacers between other beads in jewelry.

Bead crafting is a great hobby, or for the more advanced, a business. It makes great projects for kids on outings and they can also be given as gifts for family and friends. What can be made? Friendship pins, hair accessories, jewelry, key chains, ornaments, hand bag decorations and much more. And don’t forget holidays. Some awesome Christmas decorations can be made with bead craft.

Beads and craft accessories such as bead cord, nylon and bead wire, jewelry clasps, tools, such as needle-nose pliers and bead storage boxes, are sold at many hobby and craft shops. There are also many websites devoted to teaching others, with great designs and ideas.


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    • Glass-Jewelry profile image

      Marco Piazzalunga 5 years ago from Presezzo, Italy

      Very interesting hub for an overview on the history of beads. I would like to give my contribution, with regard to your mention of this type of art work during the period between the two world wars, putting particular emphasis on the importance that had the Venetian Murano glass beads, with a huge range of dynasties and generations of beadmakers. I think of the families Moretti, Ferrari, Penso, etc. ... I'm writing a huge literature job about the History of Murano glass where the glass beads will be given a prominent place.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina


      Oooops, I goofed. Thanks for the catch!

    • profile image

      Aimee 5 years ago

      Quote: " they cooled and became pliable..."

      You mean " they HEATED and became pliable...", right?

      Just trying to help. :)

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      ChitrangadaSharan, thanks for your informative input about India and comments.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 5 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Great Hub! Interesting reading. In India we have bead art work on fabric, canvas, glassware, pottery,ornaments and many more things. We also have artisans making bead curtains. Wonderful art form!

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Interesting history of beading. I love looking at old beading at museums. I also enjoy being part of a craft people have done for many thousands of years.