History of Seed Beads: Europe
by Anne Marie Hunter, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®
Though tiny in size, glass seed beads have played an epic role across cultures for thousands of years. Miniature masterpieces, created from natural resources, seed beads have been objects of adornment, as well as function. They have represented power, wealth and spirituality, been included in rituals and ceremonies and treasured as currency, opening doors for global trade expansion.
With a history over 100,000 years, beads have been made, worn and traded by nearly every culture in the world. Beginning in 2400 BCE, small glass beads were first manufactured in Asia, the Mediterranean and Egypt. In Europe, small glass beads were created in Bavaria as early as the 1st century BCE and the Romans produced and traded glass beads throughout their Empire between 100 BCE and 400 CE. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, Vikings operated sophisticated glassmaking operations in Scandinavia and produced glass beads, including millefiori.
Then, in the Middle Ages, glass seed beads were first mass-produced in Italy, and initially manufactured in Venice, beginning about 1290. Out of fear that the glass furnaces could destroy the city, the Venetian glass factories were moved to Murano. Highly secretive, with the intrigue of a spell-binding movie, the Venetian glass industry held a near monopoly on the bead industry for about 600 years and Venetian glassmakers played a pivotal role in developing techniques for mass-producing seed beads. Glassmaking methods were highly protected and glassmakers faced the death penalty if they shared the secrets.
Initially, glass beads were made by blowing or winding. Wound beads were produced by dipping a mandrel or rod into hot glass and winding it around the rod. These are the two methods used by Venetian glassmakers for hundreds of years and wound beads from an Italian glass master were so perfect, it was difficult to find a seam.
By the late 15th century, European trade had expanded around the world. Explorers and traders carried glass beads with them for use as currency or gifts and demand grew exponentially. To increase production, Venetians began manufacturing beads from long tubes of glass--a process used by the Romans in the 3rd century BCE.
Italians advanced the process of conterie, or seed bead manufacture, for global mass production--one of the most important developments in the history of beads. In the drawn glass process, the glassmaker formed a cylinder of molten glass and attached it to a rod. While the glass was hot, an assistant would take the end of the rod and run down a corridor with it, stretching it to as long as 120 meters before it cooled. The glass tube was cut into meter lengths and those were then cut into tiny glass beads which were turned and polished in a metal drum.
Because the demand for Venetian glass beads had expanded so greatly, the Venetians started sending the uncut glass tubes to Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia) to be cut and polished. Bohemia had been concurrently developing its own glass industry in Jablonec, where they had the natural resources needed to make glass--quartz deposits for the glass and forests for wood to run the furnaces. In fact, the tradition of glass and costume jewelry production in the Jablonec area reaches deep into the 16th century, when the first glassworks were established in the local area of Mšeno.
Bohemian glass masters also traveled to Italy to work in Murano's glass factories. When they returned home, they brought back the knowledge of the drawn glass process. This was a pivotal turning point for the Bohemian glass bead industry, and by the middle of the 19th century Bohemia was producing more glass seed beads than Murano.
The Bohemian glass industry continued to improve and reached international renown due to the unique breadth and high quality of their beads. The boom in the production of glass and glass components in the Jablonec area especially occurred in the second half of the 19th century.
At this time, the Czechs tried an experiment. They sent "sample men" around the world, asking customers what kind of beads they wanted. The "sample men" returned to Bohemia with sketches and descriptions of those beads. The experiment was an astounding success and the demand for Czech glass beads skyrocketed. Jablonec nad Nisou became an international center for the production and sale of glass beads of all kinds, including seed beads.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 130 export houses were based in Jablonec and the glass and costume jewelry industry employed thousands of people in the region. Despite many setbacks during the 20th century, including wars and the Great Depression, this industry maintained its exceptional profile in the world markets and the production and development of Preciosa Czech seed beads has continued successfully in the new millennium.
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