The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation to Crystal Beads
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Crystal is glass with lead in it. The more lead you put into the glass, the brighter the glass is. Lead causes health effects. If you looked at glass under a microscope, it would look like a sponge. Basically anything you put into glass, like lead or a dye, will leach out when the glass gets wet, such as when washing or sweating.
The negative health effects of lead result from an accumulation of lead in your body. It doesn’t really leave your body once there. The major way lead gets into your body is ingestion — through the mouth — but it can be absorbed through the skin. So, for jewelry, there is some concern with the older leaded crystal when it touches the skin, or when your hands touch the jewelry and you touch them to your mouth, or you put the jewelry in your mouth. The U.S. has done an incredible job of reducing lead exposure to the general population, but we still have some concerns with the older crystal beads.
The international community started regulating the amount of lead in glass crystal around 1970. They didn’t take it all out, or a big amount all at once. They’ve gradually reduced the amount of lead in crystal. Supposedly, the amount of lead in crystal today is an acceptable risk. They can’t take it all out because then there would be no crystal, and the world would fall apart.
It turns out, as you go back in time, there is more and more lead in crystal. The barrier to putting lead in crystal before regulation was the price of the lead, and lead always went up in price. So there’s more lead in the 1950’s than the 1960’s; more in the 1940’s than the 1950’s; more in the 1930’s than the 1940’s; and so forth. The crystal beads today seem very bright and attractive, but if you held them up next to beads from the 1930’s and 1920’s, the newer ones would look dull and uninteresting like plastic. If you are re-working old jewelry or working with old beads, ideally, you would want to either make things so they are worn over cloth, or put non-crystal beads on either side of your crystal ones, so they are raised above the skin.
Crystal beads are very, very popular. People really value that brightness. They are more expensive than regular glass, but not that much more expensive. These beads are always in high demand. They are always in short supply. The market for distributing and selling these beads is a bit screwy.
And this is the kind of bead that businesses actively try to scam their customers on. I want to give you a sense of what those scams are, and what questions to ask.
SCAM #1: Selling You New Stuff, But Labeling It As Old
The older crystal has much more lead in it, so is considerably brighter and more attractive. Way back when there were some very interesting colors, coloration effects and faceting effects, that only recently have been duplicated or equaled. But they can’t duplicate the brightness. The brightness results from the lead content, not the faceting. Almost all the old stuff has been collected up, so people are not used to seeing it, and seeing any comparisons between old and new. The new stuff looks bright and appealing. People are generally trusting, so it’s easy to get away with.
So you can go into jewelry stores, bead stores, antique stores, estate sales, flea markets, on-line, and see a lot of new stuff getting labeled as old. The old stuff is much more valuable and collectible. If you held the new stuff up next to the old stuff, it would tend to look like plastic.
You won’t be carrying around with you a color chart that shows you color brightness by year of manufacture. But there’s a pretty easy test. If someone says something is old — an old piece of jewelry, or a bag of old beads, hold out your hand straight ahead of you and into the air, and tell them to put it into your hand. If it’s old, your hand will drop. Even if it’s from 1970, your hand will drop. You’re just not used to how heavy things were, when they had a lot of lead in them. When you get back to the 1920’s, each bead is like a lead pellet. One bead will make your hand drop.
If you hand doesn’t drop, then maybe it’s not as old as they are saying, or maybe it’s new.
SCAM #2: Selling You Stuff From A Country Other-Than-Austria,
But Telling You It’s Austrian
Just like the Druks and Fire Polish beads, crystal beads are made in many, many countries. Beads from different countries vary in quality, and again knowing what country they come from tells you about the quality and value. The scam here is selling you something from a lower quality country, and telling you it’s Austrian (the highest valued country). They either say they are going to give you a discount on the Austrian, or they pocket the difference.
Swarovski is a company based in Austria that makes the highest quality crystal, and the most expensive. They were the first company to make these, they have the best equipment, and are viewed as top of the line. While Swarovski has offices all over the world, they make these in Austria, (though we know today a lot of production is in China). There are other companies in Austria that either distribute these beads, or turn them into other kinds of jewelry components, but do not make these beads.
Another major source of crystal beads is The Czech Republic. A major Czech crystal manufacturer is Preciosa. Czech crystal usually runs about 10–15% less in cost than the Austrian. Swarovski does a lot of markting; the Czech companies do not. That price difference reflects the differences in marketing costs.
Some similarities and differences: Both the Czechs and the Austrians use the highest amount of lead allowed at any one time, so their beads are equally as bright.
The Austrians have a cultural preference for very sharp facets. The facets on these beads are so sharp that jewelry made with them can scratch the skin. The Czechs have a cultural preference for smoother facets. To the Austrians, the sharper facets make the beads look more like real diamonds. To the Czechs, smoother facets do. Americans seem to prefer the sharper facets. Remember, it’s primarily the lead that gives these pieces their brightness, not the faceting. The Czechs have been moving to sharper facets to compete with the Austrians, because America is the major market for these beads.
The Austrians start with a more intense color palette, and reinforce that intensity through slight modifications in the shape of the bead. You can see this best in the bi-cone, which they make a little less symmetrical and a little more saucer like. This affects how the light refracts through the glass, thus increasing the color intensity.
The Czechs use what I call crayon colors. What’s nice here is that if you are looking for basic colors, like a red-red, or a green-green, you are more likely and more easily to find this color in the Czech line — even though Swarovski offers hundreds of color choices. For example, to get a red-red in the Swarovski line, you would get a red-orange.
The Austrian crystal beads tend to be slightly different in size, because of this shape difference, than advertised. So, if you were purchasing a 4mm bicone, the Austrian crystal is actually 3x4mm; the Czech crystal (and crystal from any other country other than Austria) is 4x4mm. Austrian bicones are smaller than the size you see on their label.
The size differences in the round shape are more difficult to spot. Swarovski also altered its round shapes slightly in the early 2000’s. An 8mm round crystal from any other country would be 8mm x 8mm. From Austria, the older ones are 8mm x 7.5mm. The newer ones are 8mm x 8.5mm. Again, the slightly altered shape changes the way the light refracts through the beads, and enhances the color’s intensity.
In the image below, both 4mm ruby AB bicones would be labeled the same size and color. Both have the same lead content, so they are equally as bright. The Czech color is less intense than the Austrian. The Czech bead is slightly larger and more symmetrical than the Austrian.
If you went into a store to buy 4mm Austrian crystal bicones, you won’t have a chart with you that shows you color intensity by country of manufacture. However, all you would have to do is pull off a strand of 4mm round druks off the wall, or ask to see some 4mm round sterling silver beads. If the 4mm crystal beads you are looking at are the same size as anything else that is 4mm, then the crystal beads are NOT from Austria. In the bicones, the Austrian will always be a different size than the label.
One woman who took one of my classes told the story where she had gone into a bead store she hadn’t been in before, to buy 5mm Austrian crystal bicones. The beads were smaller than 5mm, so she thought she was getting ripped off. She said she threw a temper tantrum, cursing out the store owner, and storming out. You see, it was the company she had been buying them from originally that was ripping her off. Theirs were 5mm.
One problem that people often have when they buy crystal beads from different sources is that many sources will label their crystal beads “Austrian”, but one might send you true Austrian, and another might send you Czech. There’s nothing wrong with Czech crystal. You are getting an equivalent product. The problem that arises is that the actual colors will be different, as will be the sizes and shapes. So, you can order 4mm ruby AB bicones from two sources, and if one sends you Austrian and the other sends you Czech, these will be so different from each other in color, size and shape, that they won’t mix in the same piece.
Another major source of crystal beads is China. While China is working on coming out with a line of crystal equivalent to Swarovski, most Chinese crystal you’ll find on the US market uses considerably less lead, thus is a lot less bright, and more unattractive. This Chinese crystal runs about 1/3 the price of the Austrian crystal. If you held this Chinese crystal up next to Austrian crystal, you would immediately notice that it is cloudier and less bright than the Austrian.
However, when people sell Chinese crystal, they don’t hold it up next to Austrian crystal. They hold it up next to glass. It’s much prettier than glass. Plus, they are in the business of marketing and displaying Chinese crystal so it looks great at the point of sale. If asked, I usually tell people to think carefully before they buy this. At the point of sale, it’s cheap and it’s attractive. But when you take it home, you usually have nothing to mix it with. It’s too dull to mix with Austrian crystal; it’s too bright to mix with glass. However, if you are making fashion jewelry, the Chinese crystal might be the best choice. It is very inexpensive, but will definitely add that extra level of sparkle and brightness that people find so attractive. Moreover, the Chinese line has some interesting color effects and shapes that the Swarovski line does not.
Suppose you are very familiar with the realities of the crystal market. Say you are in the business of selling eyeglass leashes, and that you had been using Austrian crystals in your leash, and having to sell them for $20.00. You have a brainstorm. If you substitute Chinese crystals for Austrian crystals, you’ll be able to sell your eyeglass leashes for $10.00, and become a millionaire.
With this particular type of bead, this relationship based on cost doesn’t really play out. People really value that brightness, and are willing to pay for it. Say I had an eyeglass leash done with Chinese crystals at $10.00 side by side with one done with Austrian crystals at $20.00. I’d sell more at $20.00. Say I had my Chinese one alone. I wouldn’t sell that many more at $10.00, based on a cost projection, because people come to the situation with an expectation about brightness. People shop around. People go to Macy’s and look at tennis bracelets, and they go to Wal-Mart and look at tennis bracelets. Subconsciously, they see and know the difference, and they bring this understanding with them to any purchasing situation.
With Chinese crystal, you are definitely getting an inferior product. But how do you know what you’re buying? I’ve been in many bead stores, bead shows, on-line, and seen many people selling Other-Than-Austrian crystal, but having this labeled as Austrian.
SCAM #3: Selling You Grade “B” as Grade “A”
Crystal in the market can be sorted into two groupings, though they are rarely labeled as such. Grade “A” is perfect. Grade “B” may or may not have scratches and chips. This works like clothing and “irregulars.” Grade “B” comes from many sources. Stores that have these loose in a tray may be selling them out, and they’ve gotten bumped up and bruised in the trays. Some people cannibalize old jewelry. Distributors and manufacturers sell off cartons that have gotten roughed up somehow, through dropping cases, moving and the like.
These beads are so bright that it is difficult to examine them for scratches and chips over a sustained time without hurting your eyes. The only yellow flag that I can suggest is that, if you see these crystal beads getting sold on strands, I’d be more suspicious. When crystal beads come to a store, they come loose in an envelope. If you see them on strands, that means that someone had to pay someone to strand them.
A good reason to put them on strands is that they sell better on strands. But you can only do so many strands in an hour, so the price of these would reflect that extra effort.
Usually when I’ve seen grade B sold as grade A, they’ve been on strands. So I’d suggest examining the beads a little more closely, if you buy them on strands.
Scams Over Crystal Beads Are Easy To Get Away With
The reason so many businesses actively try to scam their customers on crystal beads, is that it’s easy to get away with. Customers are often in a frenzy to get beads which are always in short supply. There can be a lot of wheeling and dealing when distributors sell crystal beads, so often there is not a clear and strong relationship between the price and the cost of these beads. A small retail store may have an incredibly great price, and a national distributor might have an average price. Not all the distributors carry all the colors and all the sizes and all the shapes. Often, people, while on vacation, will see some color or shape at a local bead store, and assume they can find the same thing when they get back home. There are often notorious and seemingly unexplainable shortages of certain colors or shapes.
And Swarovski, in the 2000’s, began rebranding their crystal products as “Crystallized”, which only muddied the water more. You can’t trademark an adjective. What began happening is that many crystal producers and distributors around the world began re-naming themselves “Crystallized”-something. One Chinese company became “Chwarovski.” In January, 2010, Swarovski returned to “Swarovski”, dropping “crystallized.”
Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:
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