The Ultimate Guide: Exploring the History of Beads



ultimate guide exploring the history of beads

Trends in fashion, jewelry and even art come and go, but beads have been a part of nearly every trend since the dawn of time. While the specific styles change and evolve with the passing years, the materials used to make various items remain largely the same. You may not have ever given much thought to the collection of beads you use in your crafting endeavors, but what you might think of as a simple crafting supply is actually one of the oldest art forms in existence. In fact, beads might be the oldest art form. 

Pretty amazing, right? 

The history of beads is not completely understood. Many experts believe that humans have been making and using various types of them for 100,000 years (or longer). It is even believed that the trading of beads inspired humans to develop language. Let’s dig a bit deeper and explore more about the history of beads. 

archaeology dig bowl beads

Materials Used in Bead Making


Beads can, of course, be made from nearly any material imaginable. Today, some of the most common options are made from glass, plastic, semi-precious and precious gemstones and freshwater and saltwater pearls. Our ancestors, however, didn’t have the tools and technology that we have today, though, and they were limited to using the materials that occurred naturally where they lived. 

In prehistoric and ancient times, some of the most common items used to make beads included shells, clay, pebbles, teeth, bone and claws. Wood and plant materials were also used, but many examples of beads made from these materials have not withstood the test of time. Semi-precious and precious stones were used, too, and were often regarded as some of the most valuable beads for trading. 

Other materials that have been used to make beads include ivory, horn, coral, seeds and pottery. Glass and metal were not used to create beads until later, and plastic beads, of course, are a strictly modern invention. 

Beads in the Prehistoric World


According to some experts, the earliest known examples of beads come from the time of Neanderthal man. Beads were made using bones and teeth and were worn as pendants. There is also evidence that people began adding beads to clothing as far back as the Stone age. 

Research proves that beads have been used by every known culture. They were often used as personal adornments, have also been used in prayer, as a type of art, as bartering objects and as symbols of a person’s social status. The materials used to create early beads depended on what was readily available in various ages. Stones, bones and plant seeds were widely used by numerous cultures, as was plant material. 

early beads graphic

 

As tools advanced throughout the Neolithic Era, humans began fashioning gemstone beads. Beads made from semi-precious stones like quartz, carnelian, citrine and agate were, of course, more beautiful than those made from simple bone or rocks. As a result, they had a greater value in trade. 

As the demand for gemstone beads grew, people quickly developed more effective tools and techniques and honed their skills. Gemstone beads held a great deal of value, but as time passed, people began making stunning beads using other materials, too. 

 

Seed Beadwork in Ancient Cultures


The art of using tiny seed beads to create elaborate designs can be traced back to early Egypt. In fact, beadwork items, including a pair of beaded slippers, were discovered inside the tomb of King Tut, which dates back to 1323 B.C. Ancient Egypt is also where gold beads first originated and were made by skilled artisans. 

In the Americas, indigenous people have used beads for more than 8,000 years. Many Native American cultures are well-known for creating stunning pieces of jewelry and clothing adorned with hundreds (or even thousands) of tiny seed beads made from various materials. 

Seed beadwork was also found in Japan’s Shoso-in Temple, which dates back to the 8th Century, A.D. African beadwork dates back to the 8th century, too.

 

The History of Glass Beads


Glass beads originated in Egypt and Mesopotamia roughly 3,500 years ago. In ancient times, the glass used to make beads consisted of only soda ash, sand quartz and limestone. The sand gathered along shorelines, though, contained traces of other minerals. These impurities resulted in the finished glass turning out in random colors. In time, though, early glassmakers learned which minerals created specific colors. They discovered how to purposefully add copper, iron, cobalt, manganese and even gold to create glass in the colors they desired. 

By 1350 B.C., the process of creating glass had become much more complex. Artisans began using strict chemical processes to create colorless glass, opaque glass and even mosaic glass made from layers of colored glass. As the demand for glass beads, jewelry and other items increased, special glass furnaces were built to speed up the process and allow workers to keep up. 

various bright glass beads

After conquering Egypt, the Romans learned the craft of glassmaking and built ovens that were hotter and larger. They also began using glass-blowing pipes, which revolutionized the process and made it possible to cheaply produce glass beads and other objects in mass quantities for the first time. The Romans also used glass to create windows, mosaic tiles and many, many other objects. The demand for Roman glass was high, and the beads were used as trade objects all around in the world, including in Scandinavia, China and Central Africa. Roman glassmaking flourished until around 400 A.D. when the collapse of the empire began. 

 

Beads in Europe


After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, A.D., Christianity took hold and spread throughout Europe. As culture and attitudes began to shift, vanity and self-adornment fell out of favor. In the Middle Ages, beads of all types were made in much smaller quantities throughout Europe and were primarily used to make rosaries. 

The decline of bead making throughout Europe continued until the 12th century when the growth of the Venetian Republic gave rise to a revival of many types of arts and crafts, including glassmaking and bead making. A glassmakers’ guild was born in Venice, and glass was once again being produced on an industrial level. While the first Venetian beads were likely used to make rosaries, they quickly became works of art in their own right and were once again used in trade. 

glass beads graphic

Fueled by the commercial success of Venice’s bead making efforts, innovation in this field continued throughout the 16th century when the lampworking method of producing glass was established. This method allowed artisans to work and produce beads anywhere–even at home. This, of course, was especially convenient for women and enabled them to begin working in the bead making industry. 

 

Beads in America


As previously mentioned, beads have been widely used in Native American cultures for centuries. Turquoise beads are commonly associated with tribes who resided in what is now the United States and Canada, but they certainly are not the only natural gemstones that were (and still are) used by indigenous people in America. 

According to one popular urban legend, Dutch settlers “purchased” the area that is now Manhattan from Native Americans for $24 worth of beads. While it seems, on the surface, that the Dutch got the deal of a lifetime, it should be noted that the parties had completely different understandings of the purchase. 

The native people of the time did not understand the concept of “land ownership” in the same way that the Dutch understood it. As a result, a series of brutal attacks plagued the Dutch inhabitants of Manhattan. While many of the specific details have been lost to time, the deal likely wasn’t as great as it may have seemed due to misunderstandings regarding the purchase. 

Beads were also infamously used during the slave trade in the United States. African merchants and kings traded beads for slaves. To this day, there are still some African countries that use beads as a substitute for coin currency. 

 

Modern Uses of Beads


Today, beads are widely used by people spanning the globe. While they are most often associated with jewelry, they are also used to decorate clothing and household items, including curtains, duvet covers, candle holders, picture frames, etc. 

Modern beads are made from virtually every material imaginable, though ones made from teeth, ivory and bone have largely fallen out of favor in many parts of the world. Most modern beads are mass-produced, but there are still artisans who create beautiful beads by hand. Glass and plastic beads are some of the most popular synthetic materials used in modern beads. 

modern beads graphic

Gemstone beads, however, remain some of the most desirable. While they were once shaped into beads by hand, today, most gemstone beads are made in factories using equipment that allows them to be manufactured in vast quantities. Modern gemstone beads come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Nearly any type of natural precious or semi-precious gemstone can be fashioned into a bead, though some certainly work better for this purpose than others. Some natural gemstones undergo treatment before being made into beads. Quartz, for example, is often dyed to achieve colors that do not form in nature. 

Many people are drawn to gemstone beads for their value and natural beauty. There is also, however, a high demand for natural gems in many spiritual and metaphysical circles. Virtually every gemstone is believed to carry a wide range of healing and spiritual properties. In some cases, the properties of a particular type of gem can even vary depending on the color. Pink rose quartz, for example, is thought to carry different properties than clear quartz. 

Those who believe in the metaphysical properties of gems use gemstone beads to create jewelry as well as decorative items and pieces that can be used during prayer and/or meditation. Many ancient cultures also believed in the healing properties of natural gemstones. With the rise of modern science and medicine, however, many people stopped believing. In recent years, though, the metaphysical community has grown larger and more and more people have, once again, come to believe in the many purported properties of gemstones. 

 

Conclusion


Beads have served several important purposes throughout time. While you may think of them as crafting supplies used to add some sparkle to jewelry or clothing, they once served as “money” and powerful bargaining tools. In some cultures, they still are used in place of coins and paper money. Beads have also been used as status symbols and signs of wealth and respect. They were even buried with the dead in Egypt to accompany them into the afterlife. 

Today, beads still serve many purposes. While they are no longer used as widely in trade, beads made from valuable gemstones still serve as symbols of status and wealth. Jewelry made using certain stones is given to commemorate special events and to symbolize love and affection. In certain circles, gemstone beads are even used for spiritual, mental, emotional and physical healing. They are, clearly, much more than just pretty to look at! 

collection colorful bead ropes

The history of beads stretches all the way back to the dawn of civilization, and these simple objects are likely the world’s oldest form of art and currency. They may even be the reason why we developed language and are now able to communicate with each other. 

Whether you love beads for their beauty, their purported healing properties or for any other reason, understanding their history should help you better understand what really makes them special. Here at Beads of Cambay, we are honored to bring high-quality natural gemstone beads from around the world to your doorstep. Browse our selection today to find the perfect pieces for your collection or your next project.