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HISTORY OF HOW ANTIQUE GLASS  'MICRO BEADS’ WERE MADE

Evidence of 'glass' beads have been around for thousands of years, with documental evidence from prior to 1000 A.D.  However "seed" beads made from 'glass' would appear to have come into existence between the years of 1200 and 1400 (centuries being considered 100 years, later 13th and 15th century).  Historical records indicate that the first "glass 'seed' beads" factories were developed in Venice, Italy.  Between the years of 1291 and 1292 the glass factories were moved from the main land of Italy to an island 3 miles offshore called "Murano".  In later centuries, glass factories producing 'seed' beads were established in Bohemia (now known as the Czech Republic), France, Germany, Taiwan, Japan, and the America's.

Astonishingly tiny and, now a days, extremely rare, “Micro”  (oft times referred to as 'fine') beads quit being produced in the latter 1800’s. Made from a variety of materials (glass, steel, aluminum, semi-precious gemstones and other metals/materials), beads were made by hand in a slow and tedious manner.

For glass beads, the procedure began with skilled artisans collecting glass on a blow rod or iron into which another rod was inserted.  Workers would stretch the glass by grasping one end and pulling it a distance of a hundred feet or more.  The glass was then rough-cut into smaller pieces.  The beads were then placed into a hopper filled with a slurry mixture, which smoothed the beads by an abrasive tumbling vibratory process.  Then the beads were slowly heated to approximately 700 degrees centigrade and precision ground.  They were sized by being sifted through a series of finely meshed screens.

A fascinating variety of colors and shades were achieved by adding aniline dyes, enamels, and gemstone dust, a process no longer used today.  When the entire procedure/process was concluded, only about 2 pounds of beads were produced, thus you can surmise why this type of bead manufacturing ceased. As well, colors basically came in these one run dye lots and could never be reproduced “exactly”, this makes some colors much more rare and valuable today.

Micro beads were used in embroidery and most popularized in knitting and crocheting Victorian style purses.  Introduced to the America’s by traders, they became known as “trade beads"  (though the much larger size beads were more abundant and more popular) and were exchanged with the Native Americans for their furs and blankets. Native Americans then started using the beads to embellish their clothing and regalia, replacing dyes and quills.  Little evidence of Indian beadwork can be found from the 1700’s but beadwork has been found to be quite prevalent by the mid 1800’s.  Native Americans also adapted their weaving techniques to utilize this new found medium and today is one of the most recognized forms of beadwork jewelry.

The most common bead size made today is a size 11/0, which takes 100 to 150 beads to complete one square inch of work.  Micro beads (depending on size 16/0 through 24/0) take between 600 to 1000 beads per square inch of finished work.

References:
Beads On Bags 1800-2000 - Winfield, Pina, and Korosec

Vintage Purses At Their Best - Lynell K Schwartz
- check out other books by Lynell Schwartz: Purse Masterpieces (Collectorbooks), Vintage Purses at Their Best,  (Schiffer Publications), Vintage Compacts & Beauty Accessories  (Schiffer Publications).

Handbags 3rd Edition, Revised and Updated - Ettinger

Antique Purses A History, Identification, and Price Guide - Holiner


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