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Vintage Japanese So-Called "Millefiori" Glass Beads: What Are They Really?
If you've ever seen them up close, you know that vintage Japanese glass beads made with a so-called millefiori "thousand flowers" pattern are exquisite - intricate, with vivid hues and delightful coloration. These artisan beads have an abstract floral-like design - sometimes actual flowers, other times just swirls of shapes in beautiful colors.
As far as I know, the beads are handmade and each one is truly original. When I was making jewelry to sell, I bought a few small lots of vintage Japanese millefiori glass beads off of eBay, and have loved working with them.
Up close, they lived up to their photographs - in fact, the ones I got surpasssed the photos. They are that beautiful, made with fine craftsmanship. They have a moderate sized bead hole (neither too small nor too large), and looking at them, it's obvious they were made to exacting standards.
My understanding is that the beads I bought were made in the latter half of the 20th century. They are too young to be called "antique," so I call them "vintage," and that is how they are commonly marketed.
Vintage Japanese Thousand Flower Beads
Because these glass beads are so delicate, expensive and hard to find, I used them sparingly as focal beads in necklaces and earrings, and only rarely in bracelets, where they're likely to get banged up.
They are pretty uncommon, so when you see a style you like, I recommend you snap them up, as the vintage beads are old stock and not being produced anymore. My favorite beads were some amazing robin's egg blue cylinders and orange bicones.
How Were Millefiori Beads From Japan Made?
Now, I know how millefiori is made - colored rods of glass are fused together to form patterns and sliced to reveal the shapes made by the rods. And I know that true millefiori is Italian, not Japanese. Vendors call these beads from World War II era Japan "millefiori" or "millefiore," but that is convenience more than tradition.
I've been trying to find out how these beads are actually made and what their name is in Japanese. Their provenance has proven to be elusive. Are they a type of tonbo-dama, or Japanese lampwork beads?
Millefiori or Hand Painted?
The Japanese vintage beads marketed as millefiori that I bought are definitely glass, but are probably not, as I said, true millefiori. Are they made with millefiori techniques? The most beautiful were clearly handpainted and had a matte, opaque rather than translucent surface, rather like porcelain. They didn't have the appearance of depth that traditional European millefiori does (remember those colorful glass paperweights of the 1980s that looked like flowers in water?)
I continue to hunt down the truth. When were these made, and how, and what are they called? If anyone with experience or knowledge of these beads stops by, I hope they will share what they know.
See the author's disclosure statement regarding compensation for this article.