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A Very Short History of Beads

Necklaces Closeup
Rosary beads

Bead by tiny bead, my pieces of jewelry are put together.  Beads are usually quite small; many of my pieces take 40 to 60+ hours to complete.  I find beads to be fascinating and beautiful--their shapes, their colors, how they fit together, how one color affects another.  How did beadwork start? Where do beads come from? Why did humans use them?


Beads are small decorative objects, in varied shapes and sizes, most often made of glass, shell, bone, ceramic, plastic, wood, or pearl.  They have one or more holes for stringing, weaving, or embroidery.  Beadwork is the art or craft of making things with beads. Beads can be woven together off a loom, on a loom using different threads or fireline.  They can be strung onto thread or soft, flexible wire, or attached to a surface (e.g. fabric, clay).


The oldest known example of bead jewelry is a pair of beads made from Nassarius sea snail shells, approximately 100,000 years old.


The discovery of fire was critical in the history of bead making, as beads could then be made from glass.   As early as 2340 BC, glass beads were made in Mesopotamia through “core-forming”. In core-forming, a metal mandrel is put through glass and then placed into fire.  Glass beads made in Egypt and Lebanon in 1365 B.C. have been found at archeological sites.  Prior to outside explorers coming, North American beads were made from bones, blue-green turquoise, and gold. 


Beads were considered valuable: placed in burial tombs, used for trading, religious practices, and for precious gifts.  The beads themselves could be quite valuable, made of gold or silver, semi-precious or even precious stones.  Beads are used for symbolic purposes:



Beads are thought to be one of the earliest forms of trade.  The development of language is attributed, at least in part, to bead trading. The oldest beads found to date were at Blombos Cave, approximately 72,000 years old, and at Ksar Akil in Lebanon, about 40,000 years old.



Historical beads

African trade beads or slave beads: These antique beads were manufactured in different locations.  In Europe during the colonial period they were used for slave trade (“chevron” beads); in West Africa beads were made by and for Africans, such as Mauritanian Kiffa beads, Ghanaian and Nigerian powder glass beads, or African-made brass beads.

Austrian crystal: usually refers to cut lead-crystal beads, manufactured by the prestigious Swarovski firm.  Bead artists tend to prize Swarovski crystals over Czech glass crystals.


Czech glass beads: made in the Czech Republic, in particular an area called Jablonec nad Nisou. Their tradition dates back to the 14th century, supporting their excellent reputation as quality craftsman.


Vintage beads: sometimes referred to as Vintaj, are found in collectibles and antique markets.  These beads are at least 25 or more years old. Typical materials include lucite, plastic, crystal, metal and glass. Bead artists deconstruct old jewelry to create new pieces.

Sadhu with Prayer Beads
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