When researching the origins of beading, some say the earliest beads are connected to the Neanderthal man, dating as far back as 38,000 B.C. Fashioned from grooved teeth and bones, they were worn as pendants. Regardless of the exact date of the history of beads, one thing is sure—every studied culture has used beads as a form of art, prayer, a symbol of an individual’s social status, or as a medium of barter for supplies.
Beads may be the oldest art form in existence. The materials used to create the beads had much to do with the part of the world the beads came from. Everything from plant seeds, bones, to various stones were used early on. Plant material, readily available was the most primitive form of bead crafting. In contrast, the use of gems, semi-precious stones,, and bone required more work to acquire the materials and certain tools and skill to fashion beads from these materials. Egyptian beads were fashioned from gold by skilled artisans, while Greek worry beads were made from glass, wood, amber, and semi-precious stones. Prayer beads, associated with the middle-ages and Catholicism are still used today. In America they are called rosaries and are now crafted from plastic, wood, glass, and sterling silver.
Adding beads to clothing dates back to the late stone-age. The beads used during this time were large and made from shell or ivory. Bead work, the art of using tiny seed beads is also a very old practice, dating back to early Egyptian times. King Tut himself had bead work items in his tomb, including a small pair of beaded slippers possibly from his childhood. Seed bead work has also been found in the Shoso-in Temple of Japan, dating to the 8th century A.D. African bead work dates back to the 8th century and today’s African beads include a style of paper rolling that can still be purchased today.
Up until around 1480, beads were all hand crafted. The Indo-Pacific beads of India were some of the first mass produced beads and of course the progression continued until many beads were mass produced. When European trade began, bead trading opened up with French merchants supplying to Canada, Europe and America. Later, the Hudson Bay Company traded beads with trappers and middlemen, who then supplied the northwest frontier with beads.
Of course, bead work continues to be an important part of society, even today. From mass production of various beads for religious items, jewelry, and beads for crafting, to handmade artistic glass beads and lamp-working, the art and love of beading will continue to be an important part of every culture worldwide.
More information can be found on the fascinating history of beads, as well as locations of bead museums by using the links and resources below.
Resources and Useful Links:
The Spruce Beadwork
The Bead Museum in Washington DC
Wholesale Jewlery Silver jewlery and beads
Bead Designs and their Meanings
Zulu Beads Beadwork in the Zulu culture
History Culture and Value of Beads A history told in beads, informative article
Art Beads Online seller of unusual beads
Greek Worry Beads
Museum Article on Beading Origins
Beginner’s Guide to the Study of Beads
Carmel, California Bead Museum and African Art Gallery
Detroit, Michigan African Bead Museum
Washington DC Bead Museum
A Listing of Bead Museums Worldwide