I’m not sure what it is about beads, exactly, but I do know that they’ve held a certain fascination for human beings almost as far back as you can go – according to one source, a pair of beads was made from shells and worn as jewelry 100,000 years ago. Since then beads have been made from almost every material imaginable, and used in many different ways. Beads have been worn for decorative, ceremonial or religious reasons, and as symbols of status or wealth. Beads have been used for prayer and meditation. Aside from their use as decorative or devotional objects, beads have been used as currency and were extremely important in the early economies of North America and other parts of the world.
The making of glass beads is thought to date back at least as far as early Roman civilization. The technique of making “lampwork” beads was perfected by the Venetians, beginning in the late 1200’s. Many of the family-owned glass factories operated on the island of Murano, and the secrets of the industry were very closely guarded. This is likely the reason that the knowledge of working glass to make beads did not spread worldwide until relatively recently. In reading Artist Bios of North American beadmakers who have been making art glass beads for a very long time, the early adopters (in the 1980’s and early 1990’s) tell stories of teaching themselves to make glass beads, and developing their own tools and materials. There were no books on the subject available. There was no online community of beadmakers sharing knowledge with each other. Eventually, things changed when small pockets of glass beadmakers began teaching others what they’d learned. In reality, a very small number of individuals are largely responsible for bringing contemporary glass beadmaking as we now know it into the collective consciousness.
One of the pioneers of the art glass bead movement in the US is Michael Barley, who was based in Port Townsend, Washington until his recent move to Portland, Oregon. Michael began his career in ceramics. In addition to his usual repertoire of ceramic objects, he found himself creating ceramic beads and incorporating them into jewelry. After meeting a group of glass beadmakers, he tried his hand at lampworking, and ultimately, this new passion eclipsed his ceramics practice. He has been making beads for many years, in addition to teaching, and developing new tools and techniques for other beadmakers.
I’ve long admired Michael’s amazing beads, and I always keep my eye on what he has available for sale, waiting for one of his beads to ‘especially’ jump out at me (every one of his beads is so unique and made with such skill and depth they all jump out at me, really). Every once in a while, I do add a new lampwork bead to my own collection. I don’t ‘do’ anything with it, I don’t wear it… I just collect it and enjoy looking at it from time to time. There are a lot of other beadmakers and bead lovers who do the same. I’ve been told many times by people who’ve purchased my beads intending to make jewelry with them that they couldn’t part with them and kept them around just to ‘enjoy’. As you may have guessed, I have finally purchased one of Michael Barley’s incredible beads, and I can’t wait to see it in person. I feel quite lucky, actually, as he doesn’t always have a lot of new work for sale online. Recently he’s posted quite a few new beads in his Etsy shop. There are still a few left to look at (or to purchase!) if you’re also a fan. Luckily I got a bit of extra money as a gift for Christmas (thanks to my husband’s lovely Grandpa) – good timing! Here is my new acquisition (image from the Etsy listing):
I’m glad that because of Michael and others who blazed the trail, there is now a thriving community of glass beadmakers all over the world. It’s a fun world to be a part of. If you’re curious about making your own beads, or you’ve pretty much decided that it’s something you’d like to do, I’d say, 100%, go for it. I have not had a single moment of regret since I took my first beadmaking class in 2001. People are discovering and sharing new ideas and techniques on a daily basis, and the presence of online forums (such as Lampwork Etc.) as a resource for glass beadmakers has made it so easy for this flow of information to happen. Today’s open and accessible learning environment made it relatively easy for me to get my start in glass, so I have great respect and admiration for the people who had to learn things the hard way. Maybe it’s out of necessity that these early beadmakers have all developed such a special, unique, and recognizable style. Their inspiring beads show the rest of us what is possible. It’s a good reminder that in order to become a ‘master’ at anything, you have to be truly dedicated, and you have to have a passion for what you’re doing. And you have to stick with it. I’m sure that the best beadmakers in the world, including Michael Barley, all had moments of frustration and times when they wanted to give it all up. But they didn’t. And that’s what matters.