A few years ago, I went through a feverish phase of bead collecting. I still occasionally fall for a juicy string of vintage beads, but the most virulent stage of the madness seems to have passed. My love of beads derives from my predilection for all things miniature. To me, a bead is a sculpture writ small, and a string of beads is a gallery.
In this post, I’ll share some photos of my vintage Venetian glass beads. They have been making glass in Murano, a tiny archipelago in the lagoon of Venice, since the thirteenth century. Venetian beads were used as trade goods all over the world and were especially prized by indigenous peoples in Africa and the Americas.
Venetian “fancy” lampworked beads are famed for their intricate decoration. These yellow floral beads were cut from a long cane of glass, and each one was individually decorated with green leaves and blue flowers. The “chevron” beads are the most renowned Venetian type. They are made by forming canes of glass from six layers of alternating red, white and blue. Then the canes are cut into segments, and the surface of each bead is ground down to reveal the layers.
Thin slices of chevron or other patterned canes can be cut and applied to a solid-colored bead. This is the “millefiori” (thousand flower) technique.
Glass hobbyists use millefiori cane slices like these for paperweights, mosaics, and other decorative items. The same techniques are used in candy-making! They definitely look good enough to eat.
These beads were traded in Africa, perhaps for palm oil or (sadly) ivory. The green bi-cone beads are known as “King beads” because legend has it that they were worn by kings. Such beads were passed down through generations. Indigenously produced glass beads, like those made by Kiffa women in Mauritania, are also highly collectible.
These red “eye” beads were individually wound on a stick or “mandrel” before being decorated with white dots. The core is white or yellow, with a red overlay. Older examples used gold oxide to achieve the deep ruby red color, while newer examples used less-expensive selenium and are a brighter china red. This type of bead is known as Cornaline d’Aleppo (Agate of Aleppo). The color and shape variations show that the strand has been assembled from beads of different ages.
This mixed strand includes chevrons of different colors, a black eye bead, and various floral and trailed beads. Click on the photo to enlarge and you will see three Cornaline d’Aleppo beads with fancy “eyes.” Light shining through the uppermost one shows the white inner core.
In case you’re wondering whether I make jewelry from my beads, the answer is yes! I’ll save that for another post. But with such colorful beads, it’s hard to know what to wear. The beads definitely take over the outfit.