History of Seed Beads: Japan

Design Idea 9103 Necklace and Earring Set
by Anne Marie Hunter, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

In the second article of this two-part series, we will take a look at the evolution of the extraordinary Japanese seed bead. For many jewelry artists, Japanese seed beads are the quintessential choice for designs.

Seeds were planted for Japan's current seed bead industry thousands of years ago and this history actually begins in another part of the world. About 1000 B.C., Arikamedu, India was the site of a large glass bead industry. Arikamedu glassmakers created beads using the drawn glass process, later adopted by European glass makers. In this process, approximately one hundred pounds of molten glass was drawn into a "cane"--a thin hollow tube, then cut into tiny pieces and tumbled. The beads manufactured in Arikamedu were similar to seed beads we know today; 3-5mm in size and created in opaque and translucent colors.

Through trade, these small beads made their way to Africa, China, Korea, Indonesia and Japan. Vital as currency, these beads also became symbols of power and were woven into textiles, used for embroidery and strung. Many of the Arikamedu glassmakers established the first known glassmakers' guilds. Glass masters from these guilds migrated throughout Asia, bringing with them their skills and knowledge of glass, influencing glassmaking in new regions.
History of Seed Beads: Japan

In the late 19th century, Japanese glassmakers began making blown beads including some from a multiple mold-blowing technique and inaugurated their own glass industry.

History of Seed Beads: Japan

The current Japanese seed bead industry, led by three manufacturers and considered by many to be the benchmark for seed beads, has a relatively short history. In 1935, Matsuno was founded, followed by Miyuki beads in 1949 and Toho Beads in 1951. Collectively, Japanese seed bead companies have made a science of creating extraordinarily beautiful seed beads.

History of Seed Beads: Japan The materials used in seed beads today remains the same as those used in the manufacture of glass beads thousands of years ago and are drawn from natural resources. Along with a coloring agent, the raw materials used to make glass include silicon dioxide, found in quartz, sand, flint and agate; sodium bicarbonate, also known as baking soda; calcium carbonate which actually makes up 4% of the Earth's crust and is naturally found in limestone, chalk and marble.

Though the materials have remained the same for thousands of years, Japanese innovation and technology in the manufacture of seed beads has elevated these miniature masterpieces to a new level of perfection. One of the hallmarks of Japanese seed beads is a larger hole--relative to other seed beads available. Larger holes allow the designer to use thicker stringing material or make more passes through--two advantages jewelry artists love.

In a few short decades, the Japanese seed bead industry has set a new standard for seed beads. They extensively research every aspect of the seed beads process, continually evolving the technology in an effort to create more beautiful beads. They study light sensitivity and durability, and have developed complex, mesmerizing colors and finishes, along with innovative new shapes. Many jewelry artists find Japanese seed beads to be the most desirable because of their quality and uniform size, shape and finish.

Seed beads made a trek around the globe to Japan thousands of years ago Today, Japanese seed beads retrace those steps and are used in designs by jewelry artists all over the world.

Seed Beads

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