A Very Abbreviated, But Not Totally Fractured, History of Beads
How many people throughout time have heard the sound of a dropped bead on the floor?
Or the sharp whoosh of air that comes from the cutting of a cord?
Or the dull oomph you hear when you crush a metal clasp into place?
Or the feel of the tug and pull of the thread as the needle is pulled through the cloth?
Or the resistance of the tensile strength of the wire as it is bent into a shape?
Did they see a sudden flash of light, a sudden recognition of artistic achievement? Probably not.
But it meant something to them. Subtle. Unconscious. The exercise of the hand in craft often taps into some sense of self-expression or –awareness. Creativity rewards you. It reaffirms who you are. Your worth, your value, your artistry. It is fulfilling, fun, happy, reassuring, exciting, introspective.
The exercise of your hand in craft, art and design often reconfirms that you are part of some larger group or culture, as well. You have a shared sense of what expression and awareness mean. You repeat the same steps in creation. You choose similar parts or design compatible patterns. People recognize your creative efforts when they see or wear your pieces.
Hand Craft. The feel on the fingertips and on the palm of your hand. The pattern of light that registers on your eye and then gets translated by your brain. The anticipated weight and movement of the piece as it’s worn.
The shared implications of all this, and the full range of possibilities are understood by everyone. This mutual understanding helps you cement relationships with other groups or individuals. Relationships and meanings are extensions of your hand in craft.
Hand Crafts. Beads and Jewelry. Beads and Jewelry. Beads and Jewelry. Beads and Jewelry as Hand Crafts. Beads and Jewelry have been used all throughout time. They appear in every culture in the world. Although they are not always used in the same ways or for the same reasons.
SOMETIMES BEADS ARE USED INSTEAD OF MONEY
Sometimes beads are used instead of Money. When people look at beads, they have an intrinsic value that people seem to recognize and share. In many cultures, people place more confidence in using their beads as their Money, instead of their own coins and currency.
And in our own world, this is often true as well, as we go to bead swaps, or swap one piece of jewelry for something else of value. We barter with beads. We do this all the time. Beads and beaded jewelry have a monetary life all their own. “I’ll give you this______ , if I can have the beaded bracelet you are wearing.”
And so many times, people will come in the shop and ask to work for beads. And we have plenty for them to do.
BEADS WERE USED IN TRADE
In a similar way, beads were used in Trade. This is more true historically than today, but a little bit today. When two groups want to trade with each other, it’s hard to come to terms. Because people, for whatever reasons, seem to be able to come to agreement on the value of beads, beads were used in various ways during the negotiation process.
About 300, and 400 and 500 years ago, explorers set out from various European countries, and visited far-away places like China and India and Africa, and North and South America. When they set off on their explorations, they brought with them what we call Trade Beads. These were glass beads that were made in Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands.
In Europe at this time, the folks looked down on glass beads. They used them in projects involving bead embroidery and mimicking tapestries where they could get a more 3-dimensional look with the beads than they could with the fibers.
But they shied away from glass beads in jewelry. Too cheap. Too low class. Glass was trash. For jewelry, they preferred the high test octane beads made from gemstones and precious metals. But those darn glassmakers in Venice and Bohemia and The Netherlands kept churning glass beads out. I think there were some technological improvements that occurred at this time, that made it easier/cheaper/ more efficient to make glass beads, but I don’t know this for a fact. Still, no one really wanted them.
The explorers took these glass beads with them, and at first gave them away as gifts. They assumed that people from other, “less sophisticated” cultures, would dismiss these glass beads as well. But alas and alack, these other “less worldly” men and women did not. They liked the glass beads. They liked them a lot. Some cultures even saw spiritual qualities in these glass beads.
It wasn’t long before the explorers started trading these beads, instead of giving them away. Some of the trade beads made in Europe were very generic; others were more specialized designs, colorations or etchings specific to certain countries or regions, like Africa or Persia.
When these explorers came to North America, the Indians here, at first, wanted blue beads. You see, they couldn’t easily make a blue color with the natural materials they were using — stones, shells, antler and wood. The explorers were thrilled about this. Blue was the cheapest color to make. So, the explorers found this trade to be very profitable. It wasn’t too long, however, before the Indians met their needs for blue, and started asking for yellow and red. You see, it takes real gold to make the colors yellow and red. And the trading became nearer and dearer for the explorers.
These French Traders continued their explorations down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. They discovered the freshwater pearl cultures of the Mississippi Indians in the area around Tennessee, and traded beads for these pearls which they sent back to Europe. These freshwater pearls soon earned the name “Royal Pearls”, and were restricted for use and wear by the royalty across Europe.
Even today, royal families continue to import Tennessee freshwater pearls. They have these sewn into their undergarments. After all, it’s widely believed that wearing a pearl against your skin ensures your future wealth.
And, I always wondered if you could speculate why the Indians sided with the French in the French and Indian Wars, against the British. Could it have been that the French supplied them with beads, and the British did not?
ANOTHER WAY PEOPLE USE BEADS IS FOR POWER
Another way people use beads is for reasons of Power. People with the more beads have the more power. When you get into beading, you learn this very quickly. Who has the most beads? The most Reds? The most Purples? The most delicas? Beads, in this sense, define social relationships, who’s more important than whom, and pathways of success.
About 400 years ago, among the Oglala Sioux Indians in the Dakotas, there was a big women’s movement. The women of this tribe wanted greater say and control over tribal matters, they saw an opportunity to assert themselves, which they did, and they won. This whole incident was oriented around beads.
So what happened four hundred years ago? You had French traders traveling through Canada, and coming down into the Dakotas. They brought with them these glass Trade Beads, and traded them for pelts. One of the major roles of women in Indian tribes was to make beads. They would spend all day, every day, making beads out of stones and wood and antlers and shells. When these French traders came with these pre-made beads, it freed up a lot of time. And in this one tribal group, the women took advantage of this free time, asserted themselves, and won.
One of the things the women did to mark their success was to change the costuming of the men. Before the movement, men wore beaded embroidery strips tacked down linearly along their sleeves. After the movement, the women tacked down only part of the embroidery strips — the rest allowed to flow out like ribbons. So when the men went off hunting or fighting or whatever they did, they wore the mark of the women — their ribbons would flow.
SOMETIMES BEADS ARE USED FOR SPIRITUAL AND RELIGIOUS REASONS
Sometimes, beads are used for Spiritual and Religious Reasons. You can picture a rosary in the Catholic Church. By touching and moving your hand along this bead chain, it helps you feel closer to God. It helps you feel more spiritual. It helps you remember the rituals. In Buddhism, they use something like a rosary. In Confucianism in China they use something like a rosary called Immortal Beads.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, only priests were allowed to wear rosaries and have beaded adornments. Priests had their parishioners make them rosaries and beaded this and beaded that. After awhile, the priests with the more rosaries and the more elaborate rosaries, gained higher status. So they kept accumulating, and accumulating, and accumulating, until, at one point, one of the Popes felt very threatened. Many priests were becoming as adorned as he was. So the Pope issued an edict that said everyone could wear rosaries and have beaded adornments.
The fact that you can wear beaded jewelry today, instead of making them for your priest or minister or rabbi or imam or whatever, goes back to the insecurity of one of those Popes.
LAST, BEADS ARE USED FOR PURPOSES OF COMMUNICATION
Last, beads are sometimes used for Communication. They are used symbolically. Different colors have different meanings. Different patterns have different meanings. Different shapes have different meanings.
Among the Zulu Tribes in South Africa during Apartheid, you had some Zulu tribes who adopted Christianity and identified with the colonialists. And you had other tribes that did not. Among the tribes that did not, they developed a very elaborate communication system using beads. Besides what colors were next to each other, they used a lot of triangles in their patterns. It was important if the triangle faced down, or up, and again what the colors were.
SPEAKING WITH BEADS. Zulu Arts from Southern Africa.
by J. (photographs), E. Whyte. Morris
New York , 1994
These folks might bead a necklace, or a loin-cloth. They might do a beaded doll, or a hat, or a blanket or tapestry. Something beaded. They would come out during the day, and flash the results of their secrecy, plotting and chicanery. They might say something very general with their beadwork, like “I’m mad at the world today”. Or they might get very specific, such as “I’d like to get together with you tomorrow night at 8:00, but not before I’ve met with your brother.”
These Zulu tribes kept up this communication system for about 70–80 years — all during Colonialism and Apartheid. When Apartheid ended, no one carried on the tradition. Not a complete surprise.
Today Zulu beadwork is very fashionable, particularly in Europe. But no one knows what they are saying. They are just doing pretty patterns.
Beading in the United States Today
A Social Movement Dating Back to the 1960s
Today, beading in the United States has been part of an ever-growing social movement that began in the 1960s, and, whether you know it or not, you are caught up in it, even unto today.
In the early 1960s, two new stringing materials were developed and introduced to beading. The first — NYMO Thread — was a nylon thread created by the shoe industry to attach the bottom of the shoe to the top of the shoe. This is widely used in upholstery. The second was called Tiger Tail. This was a flexible, nylon-coated cable wire. Cable wires are wires that are braided together and encased in nylon.
Before the 1960s, there really wasn’t a durable stringing material. People mostly used either cotton or silk thread, or nylon fishing line. Cotton and silk thread naturally deteriorate in about 3–5 years, so anything done on these has to be re-done every 3–5 years. Fishing line dries out and cracks when exposed to ultraviolet light and heat, that is, sunshine.
Because there was not a durable stringing material, beading, for the most part historically, was viewed as just a home craft. It did not attract artists. It did not attract fine craftspersons. It did not attract academics. It did not encourage people to experiment and push the envelop with the craft.
While occasionally in history, if you look back, you do see elaborate bead work, such as Russian bead embroidery during the 1800s and French beaded purses in the 1920’s, — this intricate beadwork was most often done by people who were slaves, or serfs or indentured servants. When they were freed, their beadwork stopped or diminished. So, when the Czar was deposed at the turn of the century, there began a major decline in Russian bead embroidery. Or when France passed labor laws in the late 1930’s, there were no more beaded purses. A rational person doesn’t want to spend all that money on beads, and take all that time making something, if it is going to fall apart.
With the introduction of Nymo and Tiger Tail in the 1960s — materials that do not break down easily — beading began to attract academics and artists and fine craftspersons. This movement began in Southern California, and gradually spread across the country. The first bead society was founded in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Today there are over 200 bead societies across the United States. The explosion in the availability of bead magazines didn’t begin until the latter part of the 1990s. The fact that you can get very excited about beads today, even thinking about selling jewelry made with them — 40 to 50 years ago, you wouldn’t have had those thoughts.
Beading has a very different energy and dynamic than a lot of other crafts, because it is only very recently begun to be thought of as an art form.
Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:
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