Beads: made in Amsterdam

A lot is still unclear about what beads were and weren’t made in Amsterdam. Dutch traders played a big role in the distribution of trade beads, but their role in the production is still not completely uncovered. Some more of the Amsterdam beadmaking history has recently seen the light, with the publication of a report by the archeological department of the city of Amsterdam. This report shows and explains the finds from excavations done at the ‘Rozengracht’ in 2006. Most interesting are the finds from the glasshouse ‘De Twee Rozen’, which means ‘The Two Roses’. This glasshouse dates from 1657 and was in business untill 1669. In the glasshouse they both produced frit, which is the raw material for glass production, and actual glass objects, including beads.

From the glass waste, half finished products and finished glass items, the archeologists were able to get a good sense of how the glasshouse worked and what they made. I was obviously mostly interested in the beads. The types of beads or bead parts they mostly found are: plain and striped small drawn beads, millefiori cane slices, a speo beads and chevron beads. I will discuss these different beads. Due to copyright on the report, I can not use any of the images on this blog. However, with the link and instructions at the bottom of this post, the full report can be downloaded from the city of Amsterdam. I will refer to the beads by the numbers and pictures that can be found from page 112 and further. An overview of the different types of beads are on page 44. Also, I am using some (poor) pictures that I made at the very small exhibit at the city archives that is currently on display.

A lot of small drawn beads are found at the glasshouse. Most of them are long ‘bugle’ type drawn beads. They come in a great range of colours. Some of the beads have stripes, either horizontal or twisted siagonally. Numbers 7.1.1 to 7.1.10 are ecamples of beads like this.
In the glass lot, some millefiori cane slices were found that show a great level of skill and are quite unlike other millefiori beads and canes I have seen before. The canes could be used for beads, as decoration on glasses or goblets or on other glass products. No finishes millefiori glasswork was found by the archeologists. Most of the canes that are found are made by arringing a lot of tiny glass rods together and fusing them. These tiny rods look very much like the drawn beads, with the distinction that they have no perforation. Examples can be seen on page 127, numbers 8.5.2, 8.5.3 and 8.5.4.
The result are beautiful canes such as on page 130, numbers 8.7.6, 8.7.7 and 8.7.8.
An other type of millefiori slices show an image of a skull, which is quite remarkable. The canes slices can be found on page 131, number 8.7.10.

After the drawn beads, the bulk of the glass beads that were found were the ‘a speo beads’. Drawn beads, with several layers and stripes, are cut into pieces. These pieces are placed on a metal rod and heated in the furnace. As a result of the heat, the edges of the bead are rounded. A lot of the beads that were found were beads that had flaws, for example because they were accidentally fused together in the furnace.

Finally, two pieces of chevron beads were found. One is very small, and the other is quite big. They can be found on page 121, number 7.4.1 and 7.4.2. I am no expert on chevron beads, but certainly the big one looks to me like the 7-layer chevron beads that are usually said to be made in Venice around 1600. It would be really suprising to me, if they were also made in the glasshouse ‘The Two Roses’. Only two pieces of finished chevron beads were found, but no canes or star molds. It seems more likely to me, that they were part of the inventory of beads that the glass house used for reference.
The big chevron piece has a wonderful neon green patina from being buried and is quite impressive.

So far my quick review of the archeological report, which was fascinating to read. It is very uncommon for beads to be found with so much information surrounding them, and with such extensive research being done. I highly recommend at least a glance through it. It is written in Dutch, but has an English summary and list of figures in English. The report can de downloaded at this site from the city of Amsterdam.  The report is number 50, with the title ‘Rozenstraat’. The report is also available in print from the city archive.

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.

Krobo beads from Ghana

From bottles to beads

The beadmaking industry of Ghana is very much alive. Not only do they produce wonderful beads, they are also an example of sustainability and recycling.

In the Dutch Afrikamuseum, I was fortunate enough to join a workshop by beadmaker and entrepeneur Florence Asare from Ghana. She went from selling trade beads in the market, to a beadmaking business with dozens of bead workers. In this post I will show the different steps involved n the making of Krobo beads.

There are three types of beads made from recycled glass. The first are powderglass beads, which are made from bottles that are smashed and ground until they are a very fine powder. They can be mixed with pigments for a whole array of colours. A reusable mold from clay is soaked in kaolin that leaves a powdery finish which serves as a releasing agent. Little sticks of cassave stem are placed in the mold to form the hole in he finished bead. The powdered glass is poured into the mold, and any excess gets wiped off with a feather. The molds go into the oven, and are left there for some time between half an hour and an hour, depending on size and heat. When they are removed form the oven, and cooled, they can be decorated. They are punt on a stick made from a bycicle spoke, wood, and kept in place with a rubber stopper made from old sandals.The decoration is done with a paste of powdered glass with pigment and water. A specific example Florence mentioned: bottles of malibu liquor are used for white powder glass. The decoration is placed on the bead with a pointy wooden stick. It takes a lot of practice to make the pretty designs. Some designs are made to resemble antique trade beads, like millefiori. The stick of beads are dried by the oven, after which they are placed in a bigger mold to be baked in the oven to bake the glass paste. Once finished, they are ground slightly on a rough stone with water, to remove any edges and the kaolin. Finally they are polished with some unscented baby oil.

The second type of beads are made with rough little pieces of glass. Again, it uses crushed bottles, but it is not made as fine as the powderglass. The result is a more transparant bead, they are most often green, brown and blue. The glass is placed in a mold, but without a stick. After the mold has been in the oven for some time, and the glass is red hot, the blob of glass is shaped in the mold by poking a hole in it, turning it over, and trying to make it round. We found this requires quite a bit of skill, and working quickly. Most of the students’ beads of this type were only half round or broken.

The last type of beads are quite similar to the second type, but only one piece of glass is used, They are made with small pieces of glass, that are all cut to the same size. They can be cut from window glass for example. A little square piece is put in a mold, and after baking, a hole is quickly pierced into it with a skewer.
All beads are finished by grinding and washing it on a stone and polished with the oil.

The ovens used are made of mud, on a base of old metal truck parts. They are generally powered by firewood, but Florence is working with a new method of using (part) natural gas, to reduce the effects on the environment.

It is a fascinating process to watch, and even more fascinating to take part in it and make your own beads. It is not something you can easily do at home, but when you are ever in Ghana….visit Florence Asare from TK Beads.

Millefiori trade beads from Venice and their friends

Millefiori trade beads from Venice are pretty popular beads, both in West Africa, where they were shipped to in the late 19th, early 20th century, but also in Europe and North America. These ‘thousand flowers’ beads are made by placing slices of glass canes on a core of molten glass. In the last thirty years or so, the price of these beads has risen dramatically, with some of the rarer patterns going up to $30 or more per bead. But also the more common millefiori beads are usually several dollars each. It is no wonder that in places like China and Indoneasia, they started making copies of Venetian millefiori beads.
In this article I will go into the differences between the Venetian millefioris and the copies from India, Indonesia and China. I will give specific point that allow you to distinguish one from another, so you will not get fooled. I will show several pairs of beads: one Venetian, one replica.  I will go into more detail of the Venetian millefiori beads in a later article.

Indian Beads
The Indians have been making beads for ages, and they really started making beads that resemble Venetian trade beads in bulk from 1980 onwards. The styles they make have only slightly changed since then. Some general ways to tell a bead is Indian is that the perforation is large, usually more than 3 mm. They are also often badly finished at the perforation with sharp edges. The millefiori beads are a quite a bit bigger than the Venetian ones. The colours and patterns are different from Venetian beads, and they are mostly darker. Some millefiori beads from India are mostly one colour, and only have a few cane slices on them. The slices are often stretched, placed without much thought to the overall look, or are badly cut. Most Indian made beads have a white residu in the perforation. Generally, once you have seen the comparison, it should not be too difficult to tell them apart.

On this picture you see an Indian bead on the left, and a Venetian one on the right.

These two pictures show three Indian beads and their perforations.

Indonesian Beads
Indonesia has quite a history in beadmaking, with Jatim beads that could be considered as ancient millefioris. However, they have not been making ‘Venetian style millefiori beads’ for that long. Most of these beads have been made no earlier than 1995, and after 2005, they are getting more varied and with better colours. Some of the beads are made to really resemple the patterns on their Venetian counterparts. Other beads are obviously inspired by the trade beads, but have their own colours, patterns and shapes. The two best ways to tell them apart is by their finish and their size. The glass used in most Indonesian Millefiori beads is slightly more transparant and has a somewhat greasy finish. They are also generally longer and wider than most Venetian beads.

These pictures show an Indonesian bead on the left, and a Venetian one on the right.

Below are all Indonesian beads

Chinese beads
The Chinese have almost perfected their replicas of Venetian millefiori beads. They specifically copy the patterns of the trade beads and try to come as close to the shape and colours as they can. The latest type of Chinese replica beads was first presented at the Tucson Bead shows in 2009. There are still some things that tell the beads apart. The way the ends are finished is neater than most Venetian beads. Also, most Chinese beads are cut at a straight angle, while a lot of the Venetian millefiori beads are cut at a slight angle.The colours are sometimes not quite right. Especially the yellow is too bright and slightly green, and the red colour is too bright as well. The finish is slightly different, also because they are new. However, this can easily be altered by sellers who want the beads to look older. Most beads show a bit of a white residue in the perforation. If you see the Chinese beads together, you will be able to tell them apart. However if they are mixed into a strand of Venetian millefioris, they are easy to miss.

In the pictures below, the Chinese one is on the left.

All Chinese beads:

A general note on replica millefiori beads. I think there is nothing wrong with replica beads, as long as they are sold as such. However sometimes they are sold as Venetian trade beads, either by people who do not know what they are selling, or by people aiming to make a profit. Have a good look at the differences, but also try to buy a few replicas, so you can study them in detail. Look at their shape, the colours, the finish, and simply feel them between your fingers. It will help you know what you are buying.

Finally, some mixed beads. Can you tell which one is from which country?

Dutch Finds

Last year I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a batch of beads that were found in the ground in the Netherlands. An amateur archeologist had found these on his  digging trips with a metal detector. Where he would find something metal, like coins, sometimes he would also find some beads. Most came from a dig in the North of Holland, not far form Amsterdam. This batch shows a great variety of beads made in the Netherlands, but also Bohemia and other European places. It shows you how beads get around, even before they got traded on Ebay.

Dutch finds

Most typical are the large blue beads. They are wound glass, and are often referred to as Dutch Dogon beads. Dutch, because theye were made in the Netherlands, Dogon, because this is the name of the people from Mali who really fancied these beads. However, as is often the case with antique beads and their stories, It is very possible that these beads were not made in the Netherlands at all, and never got to the Dogon people either.  These wound beads were made both in the Netherlands and in Germany, and confusion can easily come from the name Dutch-Deutsch. Most likely, they are around three hundred years old.

A fascinating story related to these beads comes from the same area as where these were found. Originally some people in Dutch villages would make a mosaic in their garden with these beads, instead of flowers. They would use blue, white, brown and black big wound beads.This was a practice in formal gardens in the ‘Zaanstreek’ in the 17th/18th century. This is the time that the value of these beads decreased greatly, due to less interest from the overseas trade. Pretty much all of these gardens have now disappeared. One example can still be seen in ‘Broek in Waterland’. It has been restored in 1950 with 2000 beads.