How Seed Beads Are Made
The earliest seed beads of European manufacture probably date to about 1490. Around that time, Venetian glassmakers rediscovered the method of making beads by drawing molten glass into long hollow tubes. "Although a great deal of secrecy has always surrounded the drawn-glass beadmaking operations…descriptions written in 1834 and 1919 apparently represent procedures unchanged for centuries." A description of how the French seed beads are made today closely parallels these early accounts, indicating that even with the modern technology of the late 20th century, the beads you buy today are basically made the same way as those made hundreds of years ago.

In the modern French method, high quality sand is "placed into a caldron and slowly melted to liquid form over a period of 21 days while the temperature slowly rises to its peak temperature of 1300 c - 1500 c." At this time, colorants and oxidants "like copper, cobalt, bauxite and even precious materials such as 24ct gold" are added to color the glass to the desired shade. At this point, the molten glass is drawn into long, thin tubes. Historically, "a hollow globe of molten glass was attached to two metal plates with rods. Two men, each holding one of the rods, ran quickly in opposite directions, drawing out a tube of glass at least three hundred feet long. The original bubble of air remained as an orifice or tunnel running the entire length of the tube." The modern French method is similar but the stretching is performed by a machine instead of the mad-dash method. The stretching phase is quite critical as atmospheric changes can affect the final bead color and the speed of pulling affects the final exterior size and the hole size. "The pulling of the molten glass creates the size difference itself by which the first sections pulled become the small sized beads since they are pulled farther, while the glass towards the end of the pulling process are larger in size since they are pulled not as far."

These long tubes are then cut into small sections called "canes." The canes are sorted for size and then cut into small tubes which will eventually become the final bead. The beads are finished by "reheating techniques (tumbling and constricting) or by lapidary methods (grinding)." In the modern French process, the unfinished beads are "mixed together with crushed charcoal, sand, and liquid plaster" and "placed in another furnace and heated while rotating to 800 c which shrinks the tube to its permanent form of the round bead." This is another critical step in the process because the heat creates the final roundness and the real color of the bead. Until this final step "the real color of the bead has not been seen. They have been colorless the precedent steps, which also creates the uncertainty if the correct shade has been achieved."

The beads are now complete and are ready to be cleaned and packaged for shipment. The entire process has taken as long as 60 days to create a single color. As you can see, there are many steps in the process and even a slight variation can have a major effect on the final size, color, and shape of the bead. Hopefully, you now have some insight as to why every batch of beads we get can be a different shade and why it is almost impossible to obtain perfectly sized and shaped seed beads.

 

REFERENCES

The History of Beads by Lois Sherr Derbin, 1995
Bovis Bead Co Catalog, Pierre Bovis, 1998

 

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