Orientation to Beads

Orientation to Beads


Start Your Bead and Jewelry Making Education Here
Instructor: Warren Feld

Teaching Jewelry Making - 3 Approaches
Learn To Bead Blog…At Land of Odds

Over the years, I’ve found that people who bead and make jewelry have not necessarily learned how to make the best choices, when it comes to decide what beads, clasps, other findings, and stringing materials to include, and what Not to include, in a piece. People do not understand quality issues. They are often uninformed about workable materials and strategies to make their pieces more durable, more drape-able, and better able to move with the person as the jewelry is worn.

At The Center for Beadwork & Jewelry Arts and Land of Odds, we developed a curriculum that took a design approach concerned with teaching people how to make these kinds of choices. Everyone in our curriculum begins with this Orientation to Beads and Jewelry Findings class. We offer this opportunity for you, as well.

Before getting into the details about quality of beads, metals and the like, I always like to begin with some history.

Some History

Beads Are Used in Many Different Ways

1. As money

For some reason, beads have some kind of intrinsic value that people can often come to an agreement on the value of beads. In some countries, people have more confidence in using the beads as their money, instead of their own coins and currency.

2. In trade

This is more true historically, than today, but a little bit today. When two groups want to trade with each other, it’s hard to come to terms. Because people seem to be able to come to terms on the value of beads, beads were often used as part of the negotiation process.

When you go back 300, 400, and 500 years, and you had European explorers set out from different European countries, and went to China, India and Africa, North and South America, they brought with them “trade beads”. At first, they didn’t trade them. They gave them away as gifts. But when they arrived at these various and new places, the people there liked the glass beads. So the traders stopped giving them away, and started trading them.

Trade beads were glass beads. They were made in Venice, Bohemia and The Netherlands. People in Europe at that time looked down on glass beads. Glass was trash. They would never, ever use glass beads in jewelry. They primarily used the glass beads in tapestry projects where they could get a more 3-dimensional effect with the glass, than with the fibers.

When the explorers arrived in North America, the first things the Indians here wanted were blue beads, because they couldn’t make the color blue with the natural materials they were using. The explorers were especially happy about this because blue is the cheapest color to make. After awhile, however, the Indians met their needs for blue and started asking for yellow and red. It takes real gold to make the colors yellow and red. So the trading got a lot tighter.

3. For power

People with the more beads have the more power. And in beading, you learn this very quickly.

About 400 years ago, among the Ogalala Sioux Indians in the Dakotas, there was a big womens movement. The women wanted more control over tribal matters, they saw an opportunity to assert themselves, and they won. And this whole event was oriented around beads.

So, about 400 years ago, you had French traders work their way across Canada, and down into the Dakotas. They brought with them these trade beads, and they traded them for pelts.

One of the major roles of women in Indian tribes was to make beads. They’d spend all day every day making beads out of stone and shell and antler and wood. When these French traders came with these pre-made beads, it freed up a lot of time. These women took advantage of that time.

One of the things they did to show that they won is they changed the costuming of the men. Before the movement, the men wore bead-embroidered strips down the full length of their sleeves (shoulder to wrist). After the movement, these strips were only tacked down halfway (shoulder to elbow). So when the men went off to war or hunting or whatever they did, they wore the mark of the women, because the ribbons would flow.

4. For adornment

Sometimes beads are used just to make someone more beautiful. Among the Ndebele tribes in South Africa — these are women, you probably know, who wear metal plates to stretch their necks. They developed a very beautiful stitch called the Ndebele stitch. The only reason was to make themselves more beautiful.

Here is an example of the Ndebele Stitch.

5. For religious and spiritual reasons

Sometimes beads are used for religious and spiritual reasons. You can picture a rosary in the Catholic church. By touching and moving your fingers down this bead chain, it helps people feel closer to God, and to remember the rituals. In Buddhism, they use something like a rosary. In Confucianism in China, they use something like a rosary called Immortal Beads.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, only priests were allowed to wear rosaries and have beaded adornments. They had their parishioners make them rosaries and beaded this and beaded that. After awhile, the priests with the more rosaries, and the more elaborate rosaries, had higher status. And the priests kept accumulating, and accumulating and accumulating.

At one point, one of the Popes felt very threatened, because the priests were getting as adorned as he was. So he issued an edict, that said everyone could wear rosaries and have beaded adornments.

So the fact that you can wear beaded jewelry today, instead of making them for your minister or pastor or whatever, goes back to the insecurity of one of those Popes.

6. As symbols for communication

Sometimes different colors have different meanings and different patterns have different meanings. Or they serve as special symbols.

Among the Zulu tribes in South African during colonialism and Apartheid, you had some tribes that adopted Christianity and identified with the colonialists, and you had others that did not. Among the tribes that did not, they developed a very elaborate communication system using beads.

Besides what colors were next to each other, these tribes used a lot of triangles in their patterns. It was important whether the triangle faced up or down, and again, what color it was.

So they might go home at night, and do a beaded hat, or a beaded doll, or a necklace, or shirt, or loin-cloth, or blanket — something beaded. They’d come out during the day, and flash it. It might say something very general, like “I’m mad at the world today.”

Or it might say something very specific, like “I’d like to get together with you after 8, but not before I’ve met with your brother.”

These tribes kept up this communication system all during colonialism and Apartheid — 50, 60 years. When Apartheid ended, no one carried on the tradition.

Today, Zulu beadwork is very fashionable, particularly in Europe. But no one knows what they’re saying. They’re just doing pretty patterns.

Beading in the United States Today
A Social Movement Dating Back to the 1960s

Beading in America today is also part of a social movement that started around 1960. In 1960, two new stringing materials were developed and adapted by fine craftsmen.

The first was called NYMO thread. Nymo was developed by the shoe industry to attach the bottom of your shoe to the top of your shoe. It is widely used in upholstery.

The second was called TIGER TAIL. Tiger tail is a nylon coated flexible, cable wire. Cable wires are wires that are braided together and encased in nylon.

Before 1960, people strung things either on silk or cotton thread, or on nylon fishing line. Silk and cotton naturally deteriorate in 3-5 years. Fishing line cracks easily in ultraviolet light and heat.

So before 1960, there really was not a durable stringing material. And beading, for the most part historically, was just a home craft. Beading did not attract fine craftsmen. Did not attract artists. Did not attract academics. Did not encourage people to explore and push the envelop with the craft.

Now, when you look at beading historically, you occasionally do see some elaborate beadwork. Usually, when you see this historically, the beadwork was done by people who were slaves or serfs or indentured servants. You see French beaded purses in the 1920s. France passed labor laws in the 1930s, and there are no more beaded purses. You see Russian bead embroidery in the 1800s. They deposed the czar, and there is a dramatic decline in Russian bead embroidery.

A rational person is not going to spend all this money on beads, and spend all this time making something, if it is going to fall apart.

So, it wasn’t until the early 1960’s that there were some alternatives, and they were discovered and adapted by fine craftsmen. This movement started in Southern California, and slowly worked its way across the company.

The fact that you can get excited about beads today, even thinking about selling things — forty years ago, you would not have had those thoughts. You would have looked down on beading.

Beading has a very different dynamic than other crafts, because it is very new to being considered an art form.

Not All Beads Are Alike

Beads are made in many countries around the world, but few are made in the United States. Making beads is a difficult task. Bead-making is often done by workers who are exploited in some way, and this is a reality of the craft.

Not all beads are useful for all projects. Beads come in all levels of quality and sophistication. Knowing which beads to select for your project, given your design and/or marketing goals, is a key skill every beader needs to learn.

The easiest ways to know a lot about the quality of a bead (or other jewelry part or finding) is to know what country it has been made in.

With globalization, we don’t necessarily know where things have actually been manufactured. We go with what it says on the label. Some Austrian crystal is made in China. If the label says “Austrian” we attribute higher qualities to the product; if the label says “China”, we attribute lower qualities associated with Chinese crystal.

Some beads will pass through several countries before they end up on the shelf. One country may make the core bead. Another country may do some finishing or shaping. Any country may add a coloration effect. Still another country may string them up into masses. All this before it ends up on the retail shelf of your local bead store.


Let’s start with glass beads, and the larger kind which you buy individually or on a strand. These typically would be 4mm and larger in size.

Let’s focus on some 6mm round beads, and pretend they are made in different countries, to give you a sense of what “quality” means.

We’ll start with the Czech Republic.


The Czech Republic is your major source of these “larger” glass beads for jewelry making purposes.

A lot of times, I’m going to qualify things as “for jewelry making purposes”. All jewelry moves when worn. This puts a lot of force on each individual component. You need to use higher quality pieces for jewelry, than you would for something stationery, like a beaded Christmas ornament.

I’m going to give this Czech glass a grade of “B”. We would consider the price to be above average.

These beads are:
Generally perfectly round
The beads are not perfectly round, just close.

The beads on a strand are similar in size and shape.
They are not exactly the same size and shape, just close.

The beads have a good size hole

The hole from bead to bead pretty much the same size

These holes would be called “Generally Smooth”
“Generally Smooth” is a marketing term. The hole of a bead is actually quite rough. The hole of a bead looks like a broken Coke bottle. If I took a Coke bottle and smashed it against the edge of a table, the resulting jagged rim — that would be called Generally Smooth. They can get away with marketing because your eye can’t see it. But you always have to be concerned about the holes of your beads cutting your stringing material.

The Czechs use colored glass in the manufacturing process.
If your bead scratched or chipped, it would be the same color on the inside.


Another major source of what we’re calling large glass beads is Japan. I’d give these a grade of A These beads would cost about 3-5 times that of the Czech beads.

These beads are:
Generally perfectly round
Beads on a strand similar in size and shape
Good size hole
Hole from bead to bead pretty much the same size
Holes would be called “Smooth”
And you are primarily paying for a smoother hole.
Use colored glass


A third major source of larger glass beads is China. In China, I’d give these beads a grade of D or F. These beads would be 1/2 or less in cost than the Czech beads.

These beads would be:
Generally perfectly round
Beads on a strand similar in size and shape
Good size hole
Hole from bead to bead pretty much the same size
Holes would be called “Generally Smooth”
…meaning they look like a broken Coke bottle.
Tend to use clear glass and colored coatings

The Chinese tend to use clear beads with colored coatings. These coatings are not well-applied, and chip off easily. Your beads end up looking like chipped nail polish.

Recently, the Czechs have been using coatings, as well. The coatings are better applied. Their goal is to achieve unusual color effects that they can’t create with glass alone.

[NOTE: The best gemstone beads come from China. China gets A+ for gemstones. ]


A last major source of larger glass beads is India. In India, I’d give them a grade of F—— . The India glass would be a fraction of the cost of the Czech beads.

These beads would be:
Not perfectly round
Beads on a strand Not similar in size and shape
Some holes OK, some too small, some too large
Hole from bead to bead varies widely
Holes would be called “Rough”
They can’t get away with marketing, because your eye can see how rough the holes are.
Traditionally uses colored glass, but is experimenting with coatings and decals like Chinese to keep the costs down

Choosing Which Large Glass Beads To Use

Now this doesn’t mean that you don’t use Indian and Chinese glass beads, and only Czech and Japanese glass beads. You always pick your bead based on what you are trying to do.

If you are making fashion jewelry that is only going to be worn once or twice, then your India glass would be your best choice. Not only are they cheap, but the irregularities make them look funky. And funky goes hand-in-hand with fashion jewelry.

The Chinese beads would be OK because they are cheap. But there is nothing funky about them. They look very machine made.

If you are making an heirloom bracelet that is going to be worn alot, put away, given to a granddaughter or niece, and that person is not going to wear it, then your Czech beads would be your best choice.

If you are making an heirloom bracelet that is worn alot, put away, given to a granddaughter or nice, and that person is going to wear it, then from a design standpoint, your Japanese bead would be your best choice. If you are selling these things, however, you’ll probably have to back down to your Czech bead.

I can have an heirloom bracelet done with Czech beads side by side with one done with Japanese beads. The Czech one might sell for $100.00. The Japanese one might sell for $400.00. “$400.00″ is a hard sell. To your customer, both bracelets would look exactly alike. And the things that are different are either things they can’t see, or things that may not happen for 30 or 40 years.