In 1490 the Venetian glass maker’s guild came under law stating that none of the bead makers could divulge the secrets of bead making, or set up shop elsewhere. Or risk death. By 1615 the cottage industry of making lamp wound beads was beginning in Venice. Each bead was individually created over an oil lamp. In Venice and Murano 100,000 different varieties were produced.
The millefiore bead was first created in Western Asia around 1000BC. The Venetians reintroduced this technique in the 1800’s. They are made by taking patterns of colored glass, cutting it to the size they wanted and pressing each piece onto a core.
From the 1500’s through the 1800’s glass beads were carried all over the world and used as trade. In the new world, glass was unknown, and therefore was seen as rare and precious. Beads were traded in North America for furs and in Africa for ivory, gold, and slaves. Because the Venetians could make the beads so inexpensively, they reaped a 100% return on profit.
In the case of African trade, ships would leave Europe loaded with barrels of beads, for trade and also to act as ballast. The beads were off loaded in Africa and the ivory, gold, and slaves would take their place. This is why so many of the antique trade beads have come from Africa. I have heard stories of beads washing up on the beaches, like sea glass.
In North America, the Native Americans saw the beads as a new way to express themselves artistically. Pony beads, and later the smaller seed beads, were sewn onto everything from bags, clothing, and ceremonial items. Traders, trappers and adventurers carried beads with them as they crossed the new continent. They were then able to trade with the Native Americans for food, information, and more importantly safety. When Lewis and Clark made their epic trek across the unknown west, they carried beads with them. They remarked however that they should have brought more blue beads, since that is what the Indians preferred. Blue represented the sky to them.
So as you look over the beads, think about the history and the journey they have made.