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Life on a String: 35 Centuries of the Glass Bead

All About Glass

Small glass beadAn understanding of the history of glass would not be complete without acknowledging the importance of glass beads both as a products of early manufacture in the medium and as artistic representations of diverse cultures and societies. Glass beads have been found at the earliest glass manufacturing sites in the eastern Mediterranean, leading to the knowledge that making beads must have been among the earliest attempts at glass production. The great variations in design and manufacturing techniques over nearly 35 centuries allow glass beads to tell the stories of not only their makers, but of those who used beads for various purposes and in a variety of manners. Through a thematic arrangement, the exhibition Life on a String: 35 Centuries of the Glass Bead, on view from May 18, 2013, to January 5, 2014, explores the different uses of glass beads across time and around the world, as well as examining the chronological development and processes for the production of glass beads.

Necklace with Glass Pendants and Faience Beads, mold-pressed. Southern Greece or Crete, 1400–1250 B.C. Pendants: L. 6 cm, W. 1.9 cm; faience beads: L. 2 cm. Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, 66.1.196.

The desire for ornamentation, the need to make an item beautiful as well as functional, has been an inherent part of many cultures around the world. Over time, this need has been answered in diverse ways and glass beads became an important element in ornamentation. Beads played an important role not only in life, but also in death. Bodies in Egyptian burial chambers are found to be adorned with nets of %%stone%% and faience beads; women carry elaborately seed-beaded purses to show off their personal style in the early 20th century; and the Bagobo of the Philippines cover their clothing, baskets, and belts in glass and shell beads because of their love of ornament. These are just a few examples of how glass beads (along with beads made of natural materials) have played a part in ornamentation, an element of humanity that has existed since our inception and will continue long after those of us here now.

Chevron Bead, cased, drawn, ground. Italy, Venice, about 17th–18th centuries. 5 cm x 4.5 cm. Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, 66.3.10A.

In addition to ornament, glass beads grew to be essential visual signifiers of power, wealth, and the different stages of the life cycle. Those who hold great power have used glass beads to assert their position both in their society and to the outside world. The African chief who wears a precious imported Venetian chevron bead, handed down through generations, lets the world know in its wearing that he is valued in his society. Beads also signify wealth: the more beads one has or the rarer the bead, the wealthier that person is. The Yoruba kings of Nigeria are covered head to toe in elaborate beadwork garments and accessories, asserting not only their right to be the only owners of beadwork, but to show how much they are able to acquire. Life cycles are often marked with articles of clothing with specific decorative elements. In American Indian and Indonesian cultures, baby carriers or cradles are fully beaded with specific motifs and added elements to protect the nascent soul and to comfort the child, while also existing as a beautiful object.

Pendant, formed on core or wire, trail-decorated, tooled. Egypt, 1400–1100 B.C. Diam. 1 cm, Th. 0.7 cm. (54.1.141-6)

The use of glass beads for ritualistic purposes has often been a key aspect in their production. They are frequently used within ceremonies, but also as ritualized objects themselves. Their color or pattern, the way they are worn, or their placement in burials, all refer to their spiritual or ritual nature. The eye bead, used as an apotropaic device to ward off or deflect the “evil eye,” has been found throughout the history of glass beads. From the simple Egyptian stratified bead, in which layers of glass are used to form the image of an eye, to the famous Roman face beads, as well as the mosaic canes created by Islamic glassmakers to create unique eye motifs, all are considered protective and part of a ritual that safeguards the wearer.

Face Bead, mosaic, drawn. Roman Empire, possibly Egypt, 1st century B.C.–1st century A.D. W. 1.5 cm, Diam. 1.5 cm, Th. 0.7 cm. (66.1.45)

Beaded elephant masks found in the Bamileke culture of Cameroon in Central Africa, worn annually in a dance by a secret society of high ranking men, are used to add ceremony and wonder to this ritualistic event. The glass beads sewn onto the mask highlight the power of the elephant to that society and create distinctive patterns of beauty.

Glass beads became significant throughout the world through trade, and have long been vital to global exploration and exchange. Through the influence of trade, indigenous imitations of imported beads added to the vast network of portable goods. Indo-Pacific glass beads, small monochrome drawn beads that were first produced in southern India as early as 200 BC, have been discovered to be the most traded bead known. Produced for over 1000 years, their manufacture began in India and moved to several locations around Southeast Asia. These small simple beads travelled as far as China and West Africa. The vast trade bead industry that developed in Venice and spread to Czechoslovakia is an extreme example of the power of glass beads. As European exploration and colonization began, many explorers brought along beads as a way to engage with indigenous populations.

Three Faceted Biconical Beads, ground. Czechoslovakia, 19th–20th centuries. 7.5 cm x 1.2 cm. (71.3.28)

By the 18th and 19th centuries, glass beads were being exported in massive amounts, both as goods for exchange (especially for products from Africa) as well as goods sold for profit. European trade beads have often stimulated other cultures to produce imitations utilizing their own manufacturing methods, while the popularity of traditional indigenous glass beads and beads made from preferred natural materials led exporters to create their own imitative works with profitability in mind. Since antiquity, glass has always been a vehicle for imitation, replicating agate and lapis lazuli as well as jade and garnets. Indeed, much of the original intent in the production of glass beads was to imitate precious and semiprecious %%stones%%, and other natural materials.Through trade, glass beads have travelled the globe, finding homes and meanings far from their origins, andcreating a network that covers the world and have inextricably linked cultures together.

147 Beads, drawn. Malaysia, Kuala Selinsing, 3rd–8th centuries. H. (largest) 1.1 cm, (smallest) 0.1 cm; W. (largest) 1.2 cm, (smallest) 0.1 cm. (75.1.9)

The understanding of the process of glass beadmaking and beadworking is important to understanding the cultural influences and the global spread of bead production. The most common techniques in beadmaking are winding and drawing. When glass was introduced into beadmaking in the 2nd millennium BC, the original production method employed was winding. Wound beads are produced by taking dipping a mandrel or rod of some material into hot glass and simply winding that around the rod.  Tools or the walls of the furnace are used to create the desired shape of the glass bead as it winds around the rod. The drawing of canes was known quite early in glassmaking, but was not employed in the creation of beads until the Hellenistic and Roman periods, starting in the 3rd century BC. Both winding and drawing enabled the beadmaker to generate variations of the original processes. This can clearly be seen in the Lada technique performed in India for drawing hollow canes, which was most likely how the Indo-Pacific beads were made beginning in 200 BC. Venetian lampwork beads were an extreme variation of wound beads, and employed extensive decoration in new forms and styles, but at its core the Venetian bead was made on a mandrel as it had been for centuries.

Beaded Wedding Basket with Lid, sewn. Indonesia, Sumatra, Lampung Bay area, 1930–1960. H. 13.5 cm, W. 32.0 cm, D. 31.3 cm. (97.6.1)

As time progressed, technological innovations such as the mold-press initiated new techniques, allowing beads to be made faster and more consistently in style. Mold-pressing is most frequently associated with Bohemian or Czechoslovakian bead production. As beads were traded throughout the world, unique new forms of bead production began, as can be seen in West African powder glass beads. Beads also were incorporated into traditional crafts. Beadworking spread throughout many regions as the availability of European glass beads rapidly grew. The use of beadwork fulfilled the roles of ornamenting clothing and other items that had been previously made in various traditional materials, but also inspired completely new craft forms. An understanding of the formation of these distinctive objects shows both the similarities and differences in the production and use of beadwork around the world.

By exploring these themes, the exhibition examines how diverse cultures use beads in similar ways to proclaim their societal values, but within their own traditional motifs and crafts. Objects that look utterly different can have similar meaning and use, such as carriers for young children or clothing that signifies a powerful status. Through the interweaving of themes and objects, glass beads and beadwork from around the world become relevant not only to those who made and utilized them in the past, but to modern society as well, since the practice of beadmaking and beadworking has continued uninterrupted for 35 centuries.

Published on January 25, 2013