Among the oldest human art forms, bead making dates back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where glass beads were fashioned from clay with a vitreous coating. In 1500 B.C., the traditional mosaic methods of bead making were developed. Glass bead making’s three major eras occurred in Egypt, Rome and the Eastern Mediterranean. The most renowned glass bead making era developed in Venice – the famous Murano glass beads.
One of the earliest forms of glass bead making, the wound method begins by heating glass at a temperature that makes it easy to work with. Wound around a steel wire in ancient times, the bead is shaped with the manipulation of wood, graphite, steel, or other tools. Often, the bead is further decorated with items such as colored glass.
During the Roman period of bead making, glass working centers were located throughout the Empire. One of the most significant bead making methods, drawn glass, came about with the invention of the blow pipe. Used to make drawn beads, the process is accomplished by pulling a strand from a gather of glass so as to create a bubble in the center of the strand which serves as the bead’s hole. This method proved to be faster and cheaper in making mass beads than the wound method before it. An artisan employing the pipe method was also able to expand a bead from the inside – eliminating the amount of glass needed as opposed to other methods. These refined methods of glass bead making allowed artisans to produce more glass beads during the 1st century, A.D. than had been made in the previous 1500 years.
Inspired by the Roman bead designs, the Franks, who controlled Western Europe in the late 5th century to early 9th century, also drew inspiration from Celtic designs. The Celt designs dated some 1500 years earlier, but were so admired the Franks harvested the beads from Celtic burial grounds to carry around for luck.
Europe was not the only place to give rise to innovative bead making. Middle Easterners also created beautiful beads also influenced by their cultural styles. During the Middle Eastern/Islamic dominance in the Mediterranean, bead making bears the influence of the Islamic religion. Beads were created using distinctive methods including trailing, feathering, and folding techniques. This Islamic period of glass bead making came to an abrupt halt with the Mongol invasion in 1401, followed by the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Perhaps the most well known era of glass making took place in Venice. Glass making had been going on for some time in Venice, but in 1292 the glass making industry was centralized to the island of Murano in an effort to reduce the risk of fire to the city and to protect the guarded secrets of glassmaking. In fact, Venice took its glass making industry so seriously, glassmaker could face death for revealing their secrets or attempting to start a business elsewhere. During this time, glass bead making experienced a huge boom, as artisans revived many of the earlier methods which had been lost with time.
By the early 1600s, Venice already boasted more than 250 bead producers. Methods associated with the Venetian era include the seed bead, Cornaline “white heart” beads, and the chevron “Rosetta” beads, which are all various types of drawn beads.
Murano beads are typically made using the lampworking or torch and mandrel technique, a method devised by a Murano glass master in the 1700s. The most time consuming method, lampwork requires that each bead is fashioned individually. Once the ideal shape is achieved, layers of colored glass and gold and silver leaf are applied. As the bead reaches the cooling stage, it is removed from a rod which produces the hole for stringing.
To achieve the brilliant colors of Murano’s famous beads, a glass maker must conduct the mixing of chemical compounds with extreme accuracy. For instance, aquamarine is accomplished through the use of copper and cobalt. The use of gold as a coloring agent is required to produce ruby red. Specific materials are used by the glass maker to create Murano’s amazing colored beads.