TYPES OF BEADS GLASS a mixture of quartz sand, potash or soda, heated with lime. This was invented in Egypt about 9,000 years ago. Molten glass is wound by hand around a metal wire, the MANDREL, which follows an ancient technique, which when removed, leaves a hole. This creates one of the most common types of beads. SEED BEADS - the most commonly used beads are called ROCAILLES, the French word for little stone. These have been called trade beads (used to trade in Africa and Americas), pound beads (Victorian ladies ordered their German seed beads by the pound rather than the ounce), and pony beads (means of transport across USA plains). They can be opaque, transparent, metallic, iridescent and lustred. Sizes range from 5 (large) to 24 (tiny). BUGLE beads, long, thin beads which come in varying lengths. Whitby JET - is a fossilised wood, a hard black variety of lignite or coal formed by pressure, heat and chemical reaction. Jet is black, glossy and light. When polished, it takes on a brilliant sheen. FRENCH JET is a form of glass now known as French glass. BOG OAK found in the Irish peat bags is a dark brown wood fossilized to a dull finish. FACETED beads can be cut on a grindstone or moulded. SWAROVSKI crystals - glass cut originally by hand and later with machine. DIAMENTE is lead crystal in a metal setting. EGYPTIAN PASTE - Ancient Egyptians popularised faience or Egyptian paste, an early ceramic. AMBER - is a fossilised resin, which oozed out of trees some 40 - 120 million years ago. Amber resin often trapped insects and foliage in its embalming fluid. Variations in colour are due to other substances and transparency due to air bubbles. NETSUKE BEADS - An ornamental Japanese carrying case, the NETSUKE was secured with a carved head or OJIME. Over the centuries, OJIME carving became a highly skilled form of sculpture. SEQUINS and SPANGLES Sequins have a hole on one side. Spangles have a hole in the middle. The 'chekeen' or' sequin' was originally a Venetian gold coin of high value, used in trade with the Far East at the end of the 18th C. Spangles are also called 'paillettes'. The term 'paillette' was originally applied by the French to any circular disc with a hole in its centre. They were used in the Far East and Europe for many centuries, coming into prominence in England only in 19th C and 20th C. Today they are shiny metal or plastic and come in a variety of shapes, including novelty shapes. "Couvette" is a spangle with flat centre and raised edge, like a cup.


Beadwork has been used as ornamentation long before recorded history and is found in the majority of cultures. Plant seeds were probably the first beads used by prehistoric man who used thorns or fish bones to make perforations. Elements of nature – hollow teeth, bones of small animals, shells and pebbles with holes – were used to thread as collars, necklaces and other decoration.

Glass was invented by the Egyptians about 9,000 years ago and has been crafted into beads ever since. As well, the Egyptians developed a special clay recipe called ‘faience’ and beads created by this process were made into collars worn by the Pharaohs as depicted in the pyramids. The great break-through in bead making was the invention of the bow-drill which enabled holes to be drilled in hard substances. This together with manufacture of smaller beads meant beads could be used in embroidery.Beads have been used as a sign of social standing, wealth, status symbol, beauty, in religion, as good luck and protection, and as form of communication and currency from earliest times to the modern day.


The word bead derives from the Anglo-Saxon biddan – to pray and bede meaning prayer. A set number of beads for counting prayers are used by more than half the world’s religions – Islam, mala string of prayer beads by Hindus and Buddhists, and the rosary by Christian worshippers.


Different beads were thought to have special powers; to ward off evil spirits, protect wearer from danger, or guard against illness. Red corals were travellers’ talismans in Greece and Rome; amber was thought to be a healer; large cobalt-blue ceramic “donkey beads” are thought to bring good luck in the Middle East.


For centuries, beads have been traded for precious commodities by sea or land. The turquoise was the most prized stone in desert areas of Persia, Central Asia, Mexico and South America. From the 15th to 19th centuries beads, at the forefront of world sea trade, were exchanged for gold, ivory, palm oil and slaves in a profit making venture bound up with colonisation. Thousands of pounds of European beads passed into Africa, Asia and the Americas. Until 1950, the Zulu people imported 40 tons of beads a year as currency. Certain beads are sometimes called ‘pound’ beads or ‘pony’ beads because the beads sold by the pound were transported by ponies to the outlying areas.


Beads and beaded jewellery worn as status symbols can indicate wealth, rank, age, marital status and station in society. The Karen women form the hill tribes of Thailand make beads from a tiny white seed and use them to decorate a jacket worn after marriage – a status symbol for the older women.

Henry VIII’s 98 ounce gold chain represented regal power and coins could be sold off in times of trouble. Nomadic tribes from Europe have worn their wealth in beads to suit a travelling lifestyle. On some Pacific Islands, a cowry shell belt is currency and like a diamond, increases in value as it changes hands.


The American Indians’ seed bead items – vests, moccasins, belts, leg bands, and headbands contain symbolic designs that tell stories or commemorate events. The Swazi and Zulu beaded ‘love letters’ are a complex language, conveying romantic meanings by the proportions of different coloured beads used, not by the pattern. There are 40 words for different types of Masai beadwork.


With the advent of a 19th century middle-class market for beads came new materials and techniques, such as steel, cast iron and plastics, enabling more people to wear jewellery. Rene Lalique, the glass artist, used beads and stones for their beauty, not their value.


In the West, the medieval church frowned on forms of adornment. It was not until the 16th century, when Elizabeth I and other female sovereigns were in power, that bead jewellery was worn by women and by men to enhance beauty and as sign of status. Enormous quantities of pearls and precious stones were worn and sewn on to the garments of the wealthy, and the middle classes followed the fashion using beads of bone, stone and wood.

In the 17th C, objects began to be made entirely from beads as distinct from the beads being used to enhance embroidery. Beadwork, part of a young girl’s needlework curriculum, followed the whitework samplers, embroidered casket and onto a beaded jewel box.

Beadwork declined in the 18th C with a lighter look in fabrics and fashion. In the 19th C feminine crafts of all kinds assumed great importance and magazines published instructions for making various beaded objects for the house and person – firescreens, tea cosies, mats, purses, braces, bracelets, pincushions sli
ppers, etc. The beads tended to get larger and were worked into knitting and crochet.

In the second half of the 19th C, beads were used lavishly on garments. Jet, a fossilised wood, from Whitby in Yorkshire was traded since Roman occupation of Britain. When polished, this light, black wood becomes glossy and takes on a brilliant sheen, giving richness and sparkle to otherwise dreary black garments. Whitby Jet was popularised by Queen Victoria as mourning jewellery for national heroes and her husband Albert.

Fashions of the 1920 and 1930s decreed that evening dresses and accessories be covered with beads. These were generally tamboured onto light, fine fabrics. Beaded bags, mainly from France, were worked solidly in beads or clear beads could be worked onto a printed fabric giving an iridescent effect.

After their journeys in India in the 1960s, the ‘Beatles’ pop group made popular the wooden beaded necklaces, many made of camphor wood.

Today beadwork has again found favour, particularly in jewellery


Clabburn, P BEADWORK, Album 57, Shire Publication,
Coles, J & Budwig, R THE COMPLETE BOOK OF BEADS, Greenhouse, 1992
Thompson, A EMBROIDERY With BEADS, Batsford, 1990

© Valerie Cavill 2008