The History of Glass Beads

Glass Beads: Their History and Creation

I was going to start this blog as “how are glass beads made” thinking I would bring you guys the best information literally about how beads are made. I thought I would be writing about the science and the artistry of glass beads, but as I started doing research for this blog, I discovered how important beads have been to the very history of our nation and this blog took a slightly different turn.
Photo Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

Did You Know?

            I’m sure most of us know that beads were evolved from the very minimal style choices of our ancestors. Our Cro-Magnon women could rock some teeth, bones, stones, pearls and shells like we rock a hot pair of hoop earrings. There is a 100,000-year history of people adorning themselves with beads, men, women, and children would use beads to decorate their bodies. Did you know that the creation of glass beads was an accident? Some poor potter was trying to make cool ceramic pottery and did some things out of order, putting sand in the glaze before firing the pottery which led to the discovery of what we now call glass. Glass makers were not only artists but grew into using science to improve their art, making them scientific artists, if you will. They had to learn to make their own furnaces and pots to heat the beads in.  
Glass makers would begin to combine available resources to get the desired outcome, often times having to change their process because their ingredients would be banned for some reason or another. Kind of reminds me of polymer clay becoming so difficult to find because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were at the mercy of the available ingredients and had to pivot and shift how we created our product.

 red and yellow lamp work beads dangle from string on a tree branch

How Glass Beads Impacted History

            Glass beads became objects of trade once bead makers began to refine their skills and really learn to craft some beautiful beads. Beads went through a sorted history from being coveted by the rich, frowned on by the Christians, and looked down upon by the Europeans during the height of trade, to today where those same trade beads are incredibly valuable both in cash value and as heirlooms. Glass beads exchanged so many hands and found themselves disbursed all over the world, that they would become used by historians as timeline markers based on their material compositions and techniques used. Trade and commerce made others aware of the beauty of glass work and by the 17th century lamp-work beads came on the scene. Bead making as an industry took off in the 18th century, carving the way for glass bead makers to hone their craft and skill as more than creating a good for trade, but as a versatile, man-made product for commerce.


Why Glass?

            Glass beads gained their popularity when explorers, missionaries, traders, and settlers took beads with them as they traveled to use as trade or offerings. Columbus put glass beads around the necks of the people he encountered who had never seen glass, thus boosting his character, credibility, and importance. Glass is a very versatile and easy commodity to come by and can easily be shaped and colored into anything the artist could ever imagine. This led to beads as elaborate as Millefiori and stunning as Czech glass. Hot glass can be worked and wrapped into a round shape by piercing it with a mandrel and turning it to the desired shape. The glass bead industry evolved when the use of canes and tubes became standard practice, where the artisan would pull, shape, and cut the drawn beads to desired shapes. Tube beads are created by glass blowers crafting beads of different colors and patterns by layering different colored glass, smoothing and elongating the glass to just the right bead form.

jewelry making supplies, glass beads, flat nose pliers
Glass Beads Today

      The glass makers would encase and pack the beads with ash to keep them from losing their shape and tossed and tumbled in sand to smooth the edges.  Historically, women would string beads of like sizes, colors, and shapes to keep them sorted. They would use very long and fine needles to string the drawn beads on a string and store them for travel and trade. Around 1000BC America sourced its bead supply from China and India. Today, the glass beads we know, and love are made mostly by machines. The bead making industry is still a very lucrative industry as people are always wanting to learn how to make beads either for personal knowledge or for business.  
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Create something today. Even if it’s a cosita.


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