I pride myself on being a wordsmith who could write on just about any subject, but such surety comes after over two decades’ experience. When I started out, I really had no idea what I was capable of.
So, a when a good friend got a job as a magazine editor, and called in a panic about not knowing what a “drop-cap”, and other editing terms, referred to, I talked her away from the edge by looking everything up online with her on the other end of the phone. We both learnt much from those sessions, without her boss having to know she (and me) were playing journo-school catch-up.
Eventually Eden asked more than unstinting support in a time of need, and commissioned me to write a feature about the history of beads. My late partner Jono had traded in semi-precious stones, and created jewellery out of them, so I knew my away around a bead shop, but a feature was a different matter. I just dived in, did my research, and came up with the goods, and they even used my headline! A new career was born in the process …
A brief history of beading
In 21st century Australia we do not generally cook over fires with hand-crafted earthenware pots, read by the light of handmade candles, or make our own writing paper, but at the very centre of our culture is something as ancient as all these things: beads.
Most of us wear and use beads every day as functional items like buttons.
They are durable, attractive little examples of a living archaeology; museum pieces we wear, touch and treasure in our daily lives.
A brief look at the history of beads is not really history at all, because the manufacture of beads has not dramatically changed in thousands of years. It does not require very sophisticated technology to string small perforated objects onto a length of twine or wire. Five thousand years ago, artisans were capable of much the same techniques we use today in beading. Their work is often the only evidence of vast civilisations.
Probably the earliest gem like materials collected were those that were most apparent, such as amber and pearls.
The amber pieces which regularly wash up on the Baltic shores and the east coast of Britain are an attractive and highly prized adornment traded for millennia. Likewise, the pearls of equatorial climates, gifted out of the mouths of oysters, have long been considered things of great mystery and beauty, worn and exchanged over great distances.
Shell, bone, wood and stone appear in all ancient civilisations as far back as 30,000 BC.
By around 2,500 BC, most continents saw complex religious and political cultures spring up in fertile river valleys, from Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, and beyond into Asia and Africa. These location yielded excellent agriculture, but also the raw materials for bead making, and the environment for excavating precious metals.
Beads are evidence of an international trade in these materials, created by the demands of royal and aristocratic lineage, and the artisans they patronised.
Egypt still remains one of the most influential beading cultures of all time. Within the borders of the Nile river valley were all the raw materials to produce beads from a time long before the pyramids were built until the era of Cleopatra, over two thousand years later.
Egyptian gold, turquoise and carnelian were crafted into the enduring Egyptian jewellery styles, most notably their iconic collars. The only material the Egyptians were forced to import was their beloved deep blue lapis lazuli, which was traded from ancient Afghanistan.
Perhaps Egypt’s greatest gift to the world of beads was their development of glassmaking techniques. The application of heat to sand and colouring agents created an early synthetic material called faience, which, over time, was improved to what we know as glass.
Because of its cheap production process, it was possible for most people in Egyptian society to buy and wear synthetic stone, or replicas of more precious materials.
Most of the known Western world was absorbed into the culture of the Roman Empire by the time of Julius Caesar in the first century BC. The Romans manufactured and traded glass on a grand scale, influencing beading from Britain to India.
Glassmaking began much like the process of candy makers – long ‘canes’ of hot coloured resins were stretched and sliced, then cooled into various sized beads. Mixing colour into an array of patterns was a common practice, and the further each cane was stretched, with the same patterns and colours running though it, the more matching beads were able to be sliced from it. Each bead could be perforated with hot metal rods while the glass was still viscous, creating a hole for stringing.
During this time, the Anglo-Saxon language gave us the word “bede”, meaning “prayer”, showing that the religious association of beads was always strong. The major religions borne of this period – Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism – all adopted the use of prayer beads in rituals which are still practiced today.
Rome’s far reaching influence took European traders into Africa, and European beads appeared as far afield as South East Asia, impacting the beading styles of those regions, which held ancient beading traditions of their own.
India had developed vast industries of stone beads, such as carnelian and agate, formed into detailed adornments such as the highly prized bridal collars. Thereafter, stone beads became a major Indian export.
African cultures had ancient jewellery traditions using organic materials such as seed, bone and tusk, and some of the richest sources of gold, which was exported back to Europe and beyond. The exaggerated animistic style of African beading impacted the later Roman and Byzantine decorative arts.
Glass remained the most widespread material for beading, and as the Roman Empire collapsed, the processes of glassmaking were kept alive by artisans in Phoenicia and the vast Islamic empires.
In the eastern regions of Arabia and Persia, the manufacture and trade of beads during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance saw new styles develop at a time when art and culture in western Europe diminished.
The Renaissance, from around 1400 AD, saw the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, including their beads. This was the era when Venetian glass influenced the decorative arts, and glass beads enjoyed a revival. The brightly coloured and textured Chevron bead was first created in Venice c.1500 AD and exported across the known world.
Exploration to the Americas took glass beads to the New World. It could be said that gifting large numbers of glass beads became something of an invasion technique, employed by explorers from Christopher Columbus to the conquistadors in South America.
The Native American and South American cultures had an impact in return. The Mayans and Aztecs prized Guatemalan jade over gold, and developed some of the most sophisticated techniques for drilling very long tubular beads. American Indians created detailed beading techniques to adorn everyday clothing.
Archaeology had a major impact on beading styles in the 20th century. The best example was the 1920s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the young Egyptian Pharaoh who was buried with unarguably the richest and most varied collection of decorative arts, which took modern minds back to the everyday items of New Kingdom Egypt.
Fashion in the 1920s, and certainly 20th century jewellery, were influenced by this major discovery. The highly intricate collars adorning Tutankhamun’s body were replicated by jewellers worldwide.
Beads often affected modern economies. For thousands of years it was impossible to produce spherical pearls, a process hidden inside the hard shell of oysters, but, in 1913, when businessman Mikimoto Kōkichi pioneered the mass production of perfectly spherical cultured pearls in Japan, the sudden influx of affordable yet perfect pearls sent jewellers worldwide into a spin.
Here in Australia we have Western beading styles in a setting which bridges South East Asia and the South Pacific, with the growing influence of Aboriginal Australian art, and it is not uncommon to see all these influences at work in contemporary Australian jewellery.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.