A Short History of Beads

The Chinese were busy making beads as well. The Chinese character for jade is the same as that for a bead. Jade, bronze and clay beads from 2000BC have been found in grave sites like Xian. Jade, the Chinese believe, has remarkable qualities. It heals a myriad of ailments, preserves the body and even gives clear sightedness to the wearer. Still today, Chinese women wear a jade bracelet that they never take off. The best of jade beads are worth millions!

So, trading goes on. Egypt weakens, and Rome becomes the world power. Trade routes are established, camel caravans bring riches from the East to the Roman bazaars, European tribes unite and fight off the Romans and our year "zero" has passed. Vikings start trading amber and white, soft slaves with the Romans in exchange for glass beads, incense, cloth, wine and other luxuries. Rome falls to the barbarians from the North, Christianity takes hold in the West. King Arthur rules England and the Byzantine culture was born in Constantinople. Venice is the centre of the world, sending ships loaded with glass beads to trade for goods in Africa and the Middle East. These glass beads were made in the island of Murano, just off the coast of Venice. The glass makers were forced to move there in 1292 and were kept as virtual prisoners. They were forbidden to leave the island or to reveal their secrets to any outsiders.

The art of making glass beads was a well guarded secret for centuries. Even today, the workers in Europe's glass factories don't know the whole process of making the humble glass bead. Maybe beads are still mysterious! There are, however, a few known methods that have been used over the ages. Wound glass beads are made by rolling molten glass around a copper wire and let cool . Then the copper is removed with an acid bath. Another rather sporty method is when a lump of hot glass with an air bubble in the middle, is grabbed by two workers from both ends. The glass makers run in opposite directions and create a beam with a hole in the middle. This is then cut into small beads. These basic techniques created very elaborate designs, but did not imitate precious stones, as glass beads of earlier years had, but were pieces of art in their own right.
When the Genoan Christopher Columbus arrived in America, or actually the Bahamas, in 1492, the main currency he carried was Venetian glass beads.

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