Beads – A Brief History
by Felicity Walker
What do you think the earliest recorded use of beads is – is your first thought perhaps beadwork created by the Egyptians?
Yes, there certainly were a lot of beaded items in Egyptian times, but beadwork has been found dating back to the Stone Age (the Upper Paleolithic period). Beads were added to rudimentary clothing; these beads were made of shells and ivory. Of course, the beads weren’t as finely crafted as later beads, but still, they were beads. So even in caveman times, men and women were interested in improving their clothing and appearance with the use of beads.
The beads that we tend to think of as traditional beadwork are called seed beads – because of their small size they resemble seeds. These beads were used in early beadwork – the work of the Egyptians.
The Egyptians used a type of bead called faience beads. Our seed beads today are made of glass, but Egyptians were using beads long before the invention of glass. Their faience beads were made from quartz particles fused together. A glaze was applied over the quartz. The beads were then woven or strung into a variety of jewelry and clothing.
Beaded necklaces were found in the tomb of King Tut. Other beaded items in his tomb were a pair of slippers he perhaps wore as a child and a hassock. It’s unusual for ancient beadwork to survive since it was strung on cords made from leather and cloth, which tend to disintegrate with age. We are fortunate to have these few examples to give us a perspective on the history of Egyptian beading.
Some religious texts from India refer to beads being woven into hair and into horse’s tails. These references were recorded around the 9th century BC. And beads were also widely used throughout Asia in ancient times. There were beaded items found in temples in Japan that date back to 800 A.D.
Early beads were fashioned from shells, ivory and stone. Early Egyptians valued the beads according to the stone that was used to create the beads. Different stones were thought to have different properties.
Lapis Lazuli, a beautiful blue stone, was believed to protect the wearer’s health. This stone was often fashioned into beads, as were carnelian, feldspar, amethyst, turquoise and jasper – many of the same stones we use today.
Glass was introduced as a component of beads around 1480, when Venice began drawing glass tubes and turning them into beads. Once the technology for pulling glass tubes was invented, it was easy to suddenly produce thousands of beads, all uniform in size, color and shape.
Modern jewelry and beading certainly benefits from the advances made in the production of beads, but there’s no doubt that even today, an individually handcrafted bead can be the star attraction of any beading piece.