Scrolling through Instagram the other day I saw what I thought was carved glass jewellery. It turns out it’s resin, but it got me thinking and wondering about glass jewellery.
When we were children we used to swap sweets for beads in Northern Kenya and only now do I realise that what we were getting were probably ancient trading beads. I wish I’d been a more knowledgeable and/or sensible child and had treasured mine, because glass beads have been used for trading for centuries and are quite precious now, of course. It stands to reason that these beads originated in Venice, the centre of glass making forever. In three prehistoric Eskimo sites in Alaska Venetian glass trading beads were found by archeologists and the theory is that they were traded across Europe from Venice, then to Eurasia and then over the Bering Straight into North America. Carbon dating other items at the site has put these beads to pre Christopher Columbus, so about 1440-1480. Before that, though, glass beads arrived in sub-saharan Africa from India and the Middle East, as far back as 200-300 AD, but according to a Science correspondant for the Independant, evidence of beads as old as 1100s have been found in Nigeria, and it has been proved that these beads were actually made in that area of Nigeria and not imported at all. Somehow it’s surprising that glass beads were made in subsaharan Africa that long ago, but the Egyptians made glass beads that looked like gems, so perhaps the skill and knowledge travelled south from Egypt after all. The Romans loved glass beads, and we’re lucky enough to have been able to get some Roman glass beads and make them up into the most wonderful necklace. Then starting in about the 17th Century beads were made in their thousands and were used as ballast in trading and slaving ships which spread them much further afield.
In the 19th Century the beads brought to Africa by traders were mostly from Venice, but then bead production sprang up in what was Bohemia (now the Czech republic) and two hundred years later the beads used in the elaborate and plentiful tribal African jewellery is, apparently,
still made with beads from Czech Republic. Ghana is famous for its Aggry beads which are produced in huge numbers in that country now, but it’s thought that the beads originally arrived in Ghana on Phoenician ships which traded up and down the west coast of Africa.
Venice – well Murano, one of the Venetian Islands – still produces glass beads of the most extraordinary quality for jewellery, as does Czech Republic, but production in both these countries has suffered badly from the inevitable mass production of glass beads happening in China and India.
But not all glass is made up just of silica. Dichroic glass, which is used a lot in jewellery now, is made by layering glass with micro layers of metals or oxides to create extraordinary colours and shifting patterns. It’s bright and beautiful and becoming more and more popular. The jeweller who immediately springs to mind is Charmian Harris, a good friend of Polly’s, who uses Dichroic glass in her work, to great effect.
And not all glass jewellery is made from especially manufactured glass. Sea glass is a really wonderful form of glass for jewellery, and is the direct result of our terrible penchant for chucking stuff into the sea – like glass bottles. But in this instance it has a great result. The glass gets ground down and smoothed by the action of the waves rubbing it over and over the sand, and sea glass can be found on probably any beach in the world, in fact. It doesn’t take much to find it, pick it up, and take it back to the workshop and make something lovely from it. Perfect recycling in fact, even though it’s in minute quantities!
So even as a little magpie I obviously had an eye for a brightly coloured bead, but now that I know a bit more about it, if I ever make a trade again I’ll hold on to it a bit more tightly this time.
Another wonderful blog. If I can find someone who has beads up in northern Kenya I’ll see if I can get some. Not sure if they will still be the wonderful ancient ones that you remember. But worth a try.