Beads Through History Part 1

What makes beads so fascinating?  What is it about object with holes that have drawn people to them for thousands of years?

Beads have been found in every major culture and corner of the world.   Beads have stood the test of time lasting, in some cases, for thousands of years. They have been valued as currency and as an artistic medium. The materials used to create beads have varied over time. Materials include shells, bone, stone, clay, metal, and glass. 

One of the earliest know beads were made from cowrie shells.   Arab, and later European, traders imported cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean. These bead like, brilliantly white shells have also served as a popular currency and a source of embellishment. They served well as currency throughout Africa as they were not local and were difficult to replicate. 

Stone and semi-precious beads have been found in several places in Africa.  The bead-makers acquired agate, carnelian, and red jasper stones through the trans-Saharan trade and shaped them into beads. Most often, it was an old-fashioned stone drill bit pumped by hand or even an awl that created the hole in the bead so that it could be strung.

Clay was also used to make beads.  Often the artists impressed the entire surfaces of the beads with regular, parallel grooves. Clay and stone beads were also used to record stories that were handed down from generation to generation. The intricate nature of hand crafting says much about the culture and time of the people.

Glass became an important material in bead making with its discovery around 3,400 years ago. Glass beads and hand-crafted beaded jewelry have long been associated with the Roman Empire as well as early Mediterranean, Egyptian, and Venetian cultures.


Although we may not consider it often, there are two types of bead-work specialists. Bead-makers, those who create beads from various materials. Bead-crafters (AKA beaders), artists who create jewelry, garments, and ornamentation from beads that are made locally or are imported. Artists must carefully consider the materials, colors, textures, shapes, and sizes of the beads to choose those that complement or contrast with one another.

So is it the color that draws us to the beads, the intricate detail of the bead, the shape, maybe the size, maybe it is all of the above.  Maybe it is looking back in history and seeing the thread of beads running along for thousands of years that makes each one so special.

We hope that exploring beads through time will increase your love for each bead and project!

Happy Beading!




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