A bead is a small, decorative object that is pierced for threading or stringing. Beads range in size from under a millimetre to over a centimetre, or even several centimetres in diameter. Glass, plastic and stone are probably the most common materials, but beads are also made from bone, horn, ivory, metal, shell, pearl, coral, gemstones, polymer clay, metal clay, resin, synthetic minerals, wood, ceramic, fibre, paper and seeds.
A pair of beads made from Nassarius sea snail shells, approximately 100,000 years old, are thought to be the earliest known examples of jewellery. Beadwork is the art or craft of making things with beads. Beads can be woven together with specialised thread, strung onto thread or wire, or adhered to a surface (e.g. fabric, clay).
Chevron beads are special glass beads, originally made for trade in the New World and the slave trade in Africa by glassmakers in Italy, as far back as the early 15th century. They are composed of many consecutive layers of coloured glass. The initial core is formed in a star-shaped mold and can have anywhere between five and fifteen points. The next layer of glass conforms to that star shape. Several layers of glass can be applied (typically four to seven layers), either star-shaped or smooth. After all the layers have been applied, the glass is drawn out to the desired thickness, and when cooled, cut into short segments showing the resulting star pattern at their ends. The ends can be ground to display the chevron pattern. Chevron beads are traditionally composed of red, blue and white layers, but modern chevrons can be found in any colour combination. Original beads made for trade to the New World and Africa were typically composed of green, white, blue and red layers.
Increasingly, dichroic glass is being used to produce high-end art beads. Dichroic glass has a thin film of metal fused to the surface of the glass, resulting in a surface that has a metallic sheen that changes between two colours when viewed at different angles. Beads can be fused, pressed, or made with traditional lampworking techniques. The metal coating used was originally developed by NASA for the space program.
Other beads considered trade beads are those made in West Africa, by and for Africans, such as Mauritanian kiffa beads, and Ghanaian and Nigerian powder glass beads. Other ethnic beads include Tibetan Dzi beads and African-made brass beads. Rudraksha beads are seeds that are customary in India for making Buddhist and Hindu rosaries (malas). Magatama are traditional Japanese beads, and cinnabar was often used for beads in China. Wampum are cylindrical white or purple beads made from quahog or North Atlantic channeled whelk shells by northeastern Native American tribes, such as the Wampanoag and Shinnecock.
Often beads are made to look like a more expensive original material, especially in the case of fake pearls and simulated rocks, minerals, and gemstones. Precious metals and ivory are also imitated. Tagua nuts from South American are used as an ivory substitute since the natural ivory trade has been restricted worldwide.
“Fire-polished” beads are faceted glass beads made in the Czech Republic. They are faceted by machine and then drawn through ovens to make the surfaces molten, and thus shiny when the beads cool. This method of “polishing” is faster and cheaper than buffing and results in a reasonably attractive bead, though generally less perfect than buffed beads. Czech fire-polish beads are made in an area called Jablonec nad Nisou. Production of glass beads in the area dates back to the 14th century, though production was depressed under communist rule. They commonly come in sizes from 3 mm (0.12 in) to 22 mm (0.87 in).
Furnace glass beads are a special type of art bead. They are made using traditional glassworking techniques from Italy that are more often used to make art glass objects. The manufacture of these beads requires a large glass furnace and an annealing kiln. Furnace glass beads, also called cane glass beads, are sliced from long glass rods, often decorated with stripes and other colours, also known as canes.
Lampwork beads are made by using a torch to heat a rod of glass and spinning the resulting thread around a metal rod covered in bead release. When the base bead has been formed, other colours of glass can be added to the surface to create many designs.
Swarovski crystal beads (6 mm and 8 mm), pendant 3 cm
Lead crystal beads (also known as machine cut crystal) are cut crystal beads made with hi-tech, precise machinery. Thanks to this state of the art machine cut processing the crystal items achieve outstanding geometry and excellent optical parameters. Many lead crystal beads are enhanced with surface coatings. Aurora Borealis, or AB, is a very common surface coating that diffuses light into a rainbow. Other common surface coatings are vitrail, moonlight, dorado, satin, star shine, heliotrope. Swarovski along with Preciosa branded crystal beads are prized by jewelers and hobbyists. They are a high-lead content crystal although today production of lead-free crystal is common. Lead crystals have an incredible sparkle and clarity, and are often multi-faceted to resemble gemstones. Styles and colors go in and out of production, so vintage cuts and colors are often prized with a similarly associated price tag. Swarovski along with Preciosa bicones are the most popular crystal beads in sizes 4 mm and 6 mm. Other Czech companies such as PAS Jablonec make similar styles of crystal beads.
Lucite is a term that commonly refers to many plastic beads. However, Lucite is one of the many name brands used to describe Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) or poly(methyl 2-methylpropenoate), the synthetic polymer of methyl methacrylate. Lucite methyl methacrylate polymer was among the first plastics derived from petrochemicals. DuPont chemists discovered Lucite in 1931 while exploring the high-pressure technology developed for ammonia production. The polymer's crystal-clear appearance and its' strength were far superior to nitrocellulose-based plastics. Lucite was in heavy demand during World War II for use in windshields, nose cones and gunner turrets for bombers and fighter planes. After the war, DuPont marketed it for use in a variety of decorative and functional uses, such as lamps, hairbrushes and jewelry.
The millefiori technique involves the production of glass canes or rods, known as murrine, with multicolored patterns which are viewable only from the cut ends of the cane. Millefiori beads are made of plain wound glass bead cores and thin slices of cut cane (murrine) which are being pressed into the bead surface, forming mosaic-like patterns, while the glass is still hot. Another name for Millefiori bead is mosaic bead.
Pressed glass beads are formed by pressing the hot glass into mold to give the bead its shape. Often pressed beads are made using machines that stamp the shape from the molten glass. The shapes can have holes punched in virtually any direction. The Czech Republic is the primary producer of pressed beads, although India and China also produce significant amounts.
The ivory-nut palm, Phytelephas aequatorialis, is a plant that can be harvested for vegetable ivory. It is often used for beads, buttons, and jewellery and can be dyed. The beads can take a form of the whole Tagua nut or various slices, beads and shapes carved and cut from raw Tagua nuts. In its natural form Tagua resembles ivory and hence the name vegetable ivory is sometimes used to describe it. However unlike elephant ivory, Tagua is completely eco-friendly.
Trade beads are various types of beads made in Europe specifically to be used in the slave trade and other trading in Africa. Chevron beads are a specific, historically important type of trade bead. Africa was not the only outlet for these beads. As far back as Christopher Columbus' expeditions, these beads were traded to Native Americans for goods and slaves.
“Vintage”, in the collectibles and antique market, is a term used to refer to an item that is 25 or more years old. This term and its meaning has been widely adopted in the bead industry as well. Vintage beads are available in a variety of materials including lucite, plastic, crystal, metal and glass.
Fusible beads in many different solid colors. Also known as Perler Beads, sometimes called “melty beads” by young children, these small, plastic and colourful beads are placed on a peg array with a solid plastic backing to form pictures and designs and then melted together with a clothes iron. Fusible beads come in many different opaque colours, transparent colurs and with sparkles (flakes inside the plastic) and peg boards come in various shapes (e.g. figures) and squares and rectangles. They also can be strung into necklaces or bracelets, or even woven into keychains.
Seed beads are uniformly shaped, spheroidal beads ranging in size from under a millimetre to several millimetres. Seed Bead is a generic term for any small bead. Usually rounded in shape, seed beads are most commonly used for loom and off-loom bead weaving. They may be used for simple stringing, or as spacers between other beads in jewellery. Larger seed beads are used in various fibre crafts for embellishment, or crochet with fibre or wire.