A city with a heart of beads: Jablonec Nad Nisou

Beads and glass items have been made in the Czech Republic, before known as Bohemia, as early as the 16th century. Gablonz or Jablonec Nad Nisou is and was the main centre for beadmaking in this area. Molded beads, cut crystal beads, lampworked beads, blown beads and Christmas ornaments: The Czech industry in Jablonec Nad Nisou was extensive in both variety and quantity. The records held by the local authorities give detailed accounts of what was made, when, by whom and who worked where. The book ‘ Beads from Gablonz’ by Waltraud Neuwirth, and Austrian glass historian, goes into great detail with the techniques and records of the industry. An example from the statistics in 1870 that were recorded: “The production as raw glass rods, prisms, press-molded and composition glass amounted to 60,438 ctr (A ctr is 50 kilograms), worth fl. 907,000. 268 cutting works, which used water power for the most part, were counted. In these cutting works , some 2,859 men, 975 women and 140 children, a total of 3,974 workers were employed” (Neuwirth, page 23)

This summer I visited Jablonec Nad Nisou. I specifically wanted to find out more about prosser and molded beads, but also get a general idea of what a place with so much bead history is like. It was both impressive and slightly saddening. Let’s start with the sad part. Even though the industry is known for it’s ups and downs, the current competion from cheap Chinese beads is a real test to the Czech beadmakers. Both labour and materials are cheaply available in China, and the prices are so low, that the Czech beads are struggling to compete. For someone who looks closely, you can often (but not always) see the difference in quality. But not everybody is willing to pay for this difference. From the tourist information office we were given a glossy leaflet which listed all the different retail and wholesale bead and bijouterie stores. The leaflet was made in 2009, but when we went around to these places, about one third of them had shut down. Some of the retail shops still around were selling Chinese beads as if they were Czech, instead the actual Czech beads made less than a mile away. The boggest company, Jablonex, has now been taken over by another company, and the offices and factories are empty.

However, as I said, the beadmaking industry in Bohemia has had it’s ups and downs before. The competition from the French, with their cheap Prosser beads in the 1870’s, the competition the Venice with their fancy beads, and with the expulsion of the ‘Sudeten German’ beadmakers after WWII. Who knows what the Czechs will come up with this time to fight off the competition?

Jablonec left a great impression on me, which I think it will do on any beadcollector. Most striking is how the bead industry is at the heart of the town and it’s people. Everybody seems to have links to the industry, and everywhere around you glass workshops are hidden away. This was most onbvious to me at the appartment we were staying at. There are not too many places to stay in Jablonec Nad Nisou, and I pretty randomly picked an appartment.  ‘The Pinks Street House’ was rented out by a Czech woman who now lived in the UK. Still not quite sure if it was a coincidence or just the way this town works, but it showed us we were staying at the heart of the bead industry. The building was built by Konrad Weberlich, a glassmaker, at the end of the 19th century. People who lived there from the 50’s onwards had been working from home, stringing beads. And the Czech woman who grew up there and owns the building could put me in touch with a very helpful lady still working at a bead factory.We arrived at the appartment only to find the soil of the garden mixed with beads, and big rods of glass used to put plants up. I could not have asked for a more appropriate place to stay. The beads in the garden were discarded by the people who worked at home, stringing beads. Sitting under the lovely pear tree, stringing jewelry, and throwing away beads that were not perfect.If only the beads would sprout, and produce bead trees!

In another blogpost I will go into more detail about the beadmaking process, the museum and recommendations for when you visit this town. For now…..Here is the wonderful advertisement of a beadmaking company on the main road when you enter the town.