The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation to Lampwork Beads
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MAKING GLASS BEADS BY HAND
Lampworking. The major way of making glass beads by hand is called “Lampworking.” It’s not the only way to make beads by hand, but it’s the major way. It’s called “Lampworking” because these beads were originally made over lamp flames. Another name for this is called “wound glass”, because you are winding glass around a steel rod, using the flame to soften the glass.
In lampworking, the bead artist sits at a workbench. A torch is centered in front of him or her, with a flame shooting out away from him/her. The lampwork artist takes a steel rod called a “mandrel”, and turns the mandrel between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, each hand on either end of the mandrel. The flame is shooting out over the middle of this steel rod. The thickness of this rod becomes the thickness of the hole of the bead.
Around the artist are many glass rods, each a different color. The artist usually starts with a clear rod. S/he puts the tip of the clear rod in the flame, and melts the glass onto the mandrel. Now if the artist takes the mandrel too far from the flame, or stops turning the mandrel, the glass at this point is like water, and it would drop to the table. So basically the artist has to keep turning. It takes about 40 minutes to do a ¾’ to 1” bead with some decoration on it
The artist keeps on layering the glass on the mandrel while turning it between thumbs and forefingers on either end. S/he’ll stop for a few seconds. Then the artist might take a blue rod, and melt a dot of blue onto the glass. And then keep turning. Briefly stop again. The artist will take what looks like a dental tool, and pull at the blue dot, then keep turning. This is called raking. Then he’ll stop a few more seconds, and rake some more. This is how you begin to do a pattern or a picture. The artist might also lay some shards or stringers of glass for decoration and let these melt into the developing glass bead.
Then, when the bead is built up the way the artist wants, s/he takes the mandrel with the hot bead on it, and puts this all into a hot kiln, and lets it cool, usually overnight. It’s critical in lampworking that the outside of the bead, and the inside of the bead, cool down at the same rate. This is called annealing. If it doesn’t cool down at the same rate, the bead will fracture. If the bead fractures, it means the bead will break. It may break in the kiln. It may break when you take it out. It may take a week. It may take a month. It may take a year before it will break, but it will break.
In my shop, I carry lampwork beads from many countries, including India, China, Indonesia, Venice, the Czech Republic and the United States. In lampworking price-wise, you can get low-end (inexpensive) or high-end (expensive), but no in-between. Either the bead has been annealed (cooled down) correctly and will not break, or it hasn’t and it will.
As a designer, this creates some hard choices for you. In India, they don’t worry about the cooling down process, and there are a few other craftsmanship issues, so all their beads will eventually break. Most of the India lampwork glass are copies of famous Venetian lampwork beads. Venice is top of the line for lampworking.
One raised flower rose bead with aventurine detail, and about 1” in diameter, might be $2.00 retail for the India “imitation” bead, and $20.00 retail for the Venetian original. If a person wants a necklace with a hand-made look, and is only going to wear that piece occasionally over the next year or two, then the India bead will be fine. If someone wants a more investment quality piece, then most people can’t afford a whole necklace of quality lampwork beads. You would be looking at a $600–800.00 necklace. So, often, with top quality lampwork beads, you might use just one, or say three beads, and either have a lot of cord showing, or use a lot of spacer beads. A very different design aesthetic.
One of my students had lived in Venice for a long time. She said that a lot of what you see in the souvenir stores there that is labeled “Venetian” is actually from India. There’s a real easy test. If I took the bead from India and dropped it on the floor, it would break. If I took the bead from Venice and dropped it on the floor, it may or may not chip. Great test!
One more point here. Also on the low-end are lampwork beads from Indonesia, China and Taiwan. What I like about these lampwork beads is that they copy more American styles, rather than the old-world Venetian styles of the India glass. But remember, lampworking in these countries also have similar craftsmanship issues of cooling down and the like. These beads also chip and break easily.
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