We tend to think of decorative jewellery as a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that early humans may have created and worn beaded jewellery up to 75,000 years ago, making it one of the world’s oldest expressions of individuality and status.
Did you know?
- Two beads made from ostrich eggshell were discovered by archaeologists in Tanzania in 2004, and are thought to be around 70,000 years old. They are believed to be the world’s earliest known beaded jewellery.
- The discovery of beads of this age is significant because they provide evidence that early homo sapiens were capable of ‘symbolic thinking’. Whether for trade, or to demonstrate status or identity, archaeologists believe these early beads had little to do with survival.
- The earliest known European beads date from around 38,000 BC, and were discovered at La Quina in France. The beads – made from grooved animal teeth and bones – were probably worn as pendants, and represent a time when homo sapiens were replacing Neanderthals and living more complex lives.
- As homo sapiens evolved, the implementation of farming and the accumulation of material possessions acted as stimuli to trade. An unprecedented level of craftsmanship developed, including weaving, pottery and bead-making in various forms.
- As long-distance trading grew, it encouraged the exchange of culturally significant artefacts. Beads became a popular commodity due to the ease with which they could be carried. Agate, serpentine, Sinai turquoise and cowrie shells from the Mediterranean, as well as coral and carnelian, were some of the first beads traded and have been discovered at archaeological sites throughout the Middle East.
- From around 6,000 BC, beads and their raw materials became an increasingly significant ‘currency’. Lapis lazuli beads – which were mined 1,500 miles away in Afghanistan – were of great importance to the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia. Often, it was the raw materials that were traded, with the beads themselves fashioned locally to fulfil cultural need.
- During the Bronze Age, Greek traders from Mycenae established strong trade links with less advanced cultures around the Baltic. Copper and bronze was exchanged for amber, with was then fashioned into beads. The Greek traders also passed on cultural knowledge and expertise which helped the Baltic communities to advance.
- The first known glass-type beads were Egyptian faience beads which were made from clay, but had a thin lustrous glass-type (vitreous) coating. From about 5,000 – 2,000 years ago (a period of remarkable stability in Egypt), Egyptian bead-makers often worked under the patronage of kings or priests. They used sophisticated techniques and an incredible variety of precious materials to create stunning beaded jewellery which was worn as an expression of status and hierarchy.
- More complex glass beads, such as mosaic or ‘millefiori’ beads, were developed in Mesopotamia about 3,500 years ago. Further refined by the Syrians and Egyptians, these sophisticated beads were traded as far north as Scandinavia. As these empires fell, the expert bead-workers – whether by their own volition or by force – would relocate, taking their skills and secrets with them.
- The Romans, who had a love of coloured translucent glass, created sophisticated new kilns to produce more liquid-type glass. They developed glass drawing and glass blowing techniques, and drew on the knowledge of their best bead-workers, many of whom hailed from the eastern provinces. They traded large numbers of glass beads (in a myriad of colours and sizes). Roman beads have been found as far east as China and Korea, as well as north to Scandinavia, and south to Mali and Ethiopia, these beads were traded through new and existing trading routes often passing through many different cultures.
- Often, the Romans traded beads for profit with less technologically-advanced cultures. They also traded beads in exchange for local resources, such as Whitby Jet and Baltic Amber, which were available at the extremes of the Roman Empire.
- As the production capacity of the Roman glass manufactures increased, beads were no longer produced for just the elite, but for the general public too, although the bead quality was often poorer.
- With the collapse of the Roman Empire, so the glass-making expertise dispersed and regional bead styles evolved. Previously settled tribes began to migrate, taking highly-sophisticated bead jewellery with them as a portable form of wealth.
- European glass bead production diminished during the medieval period, apart from in small pockets of France, Italy and Germany, where imported soda used in the glass production process, was replaced with potash lime made from local wood ash.
- By the early fifteenth century, Venice became the glass and bead making centre of Europe, (lesser centres also existed in Holland, Bohemia and Moravia) due largely to tribal conquests in the Middle East ending 3,000 years of bead production. There is speculation that after the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, many of the glass makers there moved to Venice, taking their secrets with them.
- Venetian glass bead production was concentrated on the island of Murano (which was by now the world’s dominant bead production centre) to protect the city from fire risk from the kilns, and to safeguard the production secrets of the glass workers.
- In 1797, Venice fell to Napoleon. Many of the city’s bead and glassworkers were taken to France where their secret production techniques were uncovered. This allowed for the growth of new European bead production centres in the Czech Republic and Holland.
- From about 1750, beads from the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic became a viable alternative to Venetian beads. As the Venetian bead empire faltered, so the Bohemians began to develop unique production techniques, which – from about 1737 – included the cutting of glass on water powered cutting wheels. Two distinct forms of ‘Kristallerie’ cutting evolved; ‘Kugeln’ (globe) cutting which used a vertical cutting wheel to produce a concave cut, and ‘Englisch-Schliff’(English Cut) horizontal wheels which produced a flat cut. By 1829 there were 152 specialist cutting workshops in Gablonz (Jablonec nad Nisou) alone, as well as more than a thousand local ‘cottage’ producers.
- The world famous Daniel Swarovski was born into a glass cutting family in northern Bohemia in 1862. In 1883, Swarovski attended the ‘First Electricity Exhibition’ in Vienna, which inspired him to improve methods of cutting and faceting glass beads. In 1892, Swarovski patented the first electric glass cutting machine, leading to the birth of the mechanised production of crystal glass.
- Following the end of the Second World War, the sudden expulsion of the ‘Sudeten German’ element of Bohemia (some three million people), brought an end to many of the region’s famous glass and jewellery making dynasties. Under a new communist Russian regime, an alternative Bohemian glass bead culture – fuelled by creative Czech artists – began to grow and still exists today. For many years, the state run export house Jablonex, controlled a large portion of Bohemia’s glass industry. In 2009, the region’s core glass production business passed to the Preciosa Group, who continue to uphold the traditions of Czech glass production, and whose beads are still, to this day, primarily made from drawn glass rods
About Boundless Beads
Established in 1992, we are a UK-based, family-run business. We supply exquisite artisan beads and beautiful hand-crafted jewellery elements to the hobbyist market and to wholesale partners throughout the UK and globally.We are privileged to work closely with some of the industry’s best glassworkers and bead-makers, many of whom hail from the world-renowned Bohemian dynasties of the Czech Republic. Many of the beads we sell are entirely unique to our collections and can be found no-where else in the marketplace.