A network of bead manufacturers who shared stylistic and technical methods existed in Europe, western Asia, and the Mediterranean while the Roman Empire flourished. With the dissolution of the empire, however, the major centers of bead making were replaced by numerous smaller, local workshops that obtained their ideas and primary materials from a variety of sources, including Persia, Egypt, and regions of Europe settled by the Celts. As traditional bead making links were severed, beads with highly localized characteristics developed.
Throughout the history of the Roman Empire, its frontiers were almost continuously assailed by marauding bands seeking booty from the wealthy, civilized world. In addition, there was the constant pressure of groups from central and western Asia who were forced from their own lands by tribes farther east and gradually migrated to the fertile regions of Europe. Asian tribes who invaded western Europe during the fourth century A.D., a time known as the Migrations Period, found a fragmented society with internal political and social problems, neither strong enough to hold them at bay nor flexible enough to absorb them into the Roman system. In the next century the overwhelming numbers of these nomadic people finally brought about the collapse of imperial power in the West. The remaining power of the Roman Empire was then vested entirely in its eastern capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), center of the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantine and Migrations Period jewelers had many techniques and design motifs in common, but their work also differed in several major ways. Craftsmen from both traditions shared a love for color, best expressed in their combination of metals, colored stones, and glass. Migrations Period artisans tended to employ sturdy forms, perhaps because beads were worn abundantly by every member of the tribal societies. In contrast, Byzantine jewelry was worn primarily by the elite. Pieces were designed for a more sedentary lifestyle and employed a greater use of precious metals and stones, rarely using glass. Tribal jewelers were more dependent than their Byzantine counterparts on whatever raw materials happened to be locally available. Constantinople, on the contrary, was the hub of a vast trade network that allowed access to a very wide range of raw materials.
European beads from the late Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance reflect the wide social and historical divisions of the period. Beads of gold and precious or semi-precious stone adorned the elite, Byzantine nobility Europe's feudal rulers, and officials of the Christian church. Clay, amber, stone, and glass beads were worn by migratory and settled tribal people and by common folk of the indigenous populations.
Wealthy, urban Romans did not favor glass beads, which they considered "barbaric" decorations. This was particularly true after the beginning of the Christian Era, when quantities of glass beads made through newly discovered mass-production techniques became affordable to the populace at large. As artistic activity was transferred to Constantinople from Rome, the empire's jewelers continued to make beads primarily from precious metals and stones.
However, in numerous central and northern European regions that had once been provincial Roman glassmaking centers, glass beads never ceased being made and worn. During the era of the great migrations, colorful and eye-catching beads of gold and garnet or amber and glass were donned by tribesmen. As the tribes settled and in some cases forged their own empires, regional styles of glass bead making developed, particularly in areas that already had a glass making tradition.