Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Age of European Beads Expansion

Beads traded in Africa for gold. Top left bead: diameter, 1.69 cmFrom the Renaissance until the Industrial Revolution, beads occupied a minor place in European adornment. Lavish jewelry reflecting the abundance of precious stones and metal flowing into Europe from colonies in the Americas and the East, dominated courtly and aristocratic fashion. But though beads were not greatly coveted by Europeans themselves, European glassmakers mass-produced huge quantities for other purposes.

The most important chapter in the story of beads from the sixteenth to the twentieth century belongs to the European glass bead industry during this period, most explorers, traders, and missionaries carried glass beads with them as gifts or objects of barter. Their activities created considerable markets, and the result was an enormous increase in the volume of bead production, accompanied by a proliferation of bead varieties as well as continual improvements and refinements in manufacturing techniques.

Beads traded in Africa for ivory Top left bead: diameter 1.48 an. When Europeans sailed to faraway places, their hosts accepted beads for a variety of reasons. Indonesians and Filipinos coveted stone and glass beads, which they had obtained from Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern traders for centuries. In the New World, however, glass was completely unknown and was treasured as a rare substance when it was introduced by the Europeans. The introduction of tiny, colorful glass "seed" or microbeads was frequently welcomed as a replacement for more labor-intensive adornment techniques. Woodland and Great Lakes tribes in North America, for example, greatly expanded the range of decorative forms and techniques on clothing and other objects, using glass seed beads rather than traditional porcupine quills.

For Europeans, whose aim was to maintain maximum profits with a minimum commitment of manpower and resources, glass beads, exchanged for American furs or African ivory, gold, and slaves, yielded enormous margins-1,000 percent was the return on investment according to a report in 1632 and thus became a central part of international trade patterns. Beads, of course, were only a part of a complex trading cycle: rum, cloth, guns, and beads were sent from Europe to Africa; slaves from Africa were taken to the New World; and sugar, tobacco, and silver and gold bullion from the New World went to Europe.

Beads traded in Africa for palm oil. Top left bead: length, 3.2 cm
An important dimension of the Europeans' commercial expansion was the ability to integrate their efforts with preexisting trade networks. As a lively bead trade had existed in most of the world for millenniums, European traders frequently used the same routes, where their further success .depended on identifying local bead tastes and responding with appropriate goods. The prosperity enjoyed by major glass factories in Venice, Holland, and Bohemia and Moravia (present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia) was often a result of providing specifically shaped beads in desired colors and patterns. Since tastes varied widely between countries as well as neighboring villages, the variety and quantity of beads produced was enormous.
The earliest and most renowned European glass bead making center was in Venice. Although glass factories existed in Italy, Holland, Bohemia, Moravia, France, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, England, Germany, and the Baltic States, Venetian glassmakers dominated the world market in volume, quality, and diversity until the twentieth century

A Yoruba diviner's bag from late nine-teenth- or early twentieth-century Nigeria, used to carry ritual accessories. The six cylinders in the strap are bead-covered corncobs. Height, 125.7 cm. Collection Ruth and Paul Tishman, New York Venice's rise to glassmaking supremacy corresponded with the decline of the western Asian industries. After Tamerlane's Mongol armies overran Damascus, Tyre, Aleppo, and Sidon in 1401, glass bead making practices that had lasted over three thousand years were effectively ended and quality glass was no longer produced in the region. The Venetians filled this void, successfully inheriting the role of glass bead maker for the Western world and subsequently taking over markets in Africa and Southeast Asia that had been supplied by India for centuries.

Glass Seed (Micro) Beads

Manufactured in northern Italy since the late 1400s; de d, Venetion-made drawn-glass Seed' ' ads were “Coveted throughout the' world Graded in size from approximately .120" (size 5) to .040" (size 22). The tins beads have been used by artisans for nearly live hundred years to decorate clothing, weave into necklaces, and assemble into wearable sculpture.

Here, two superb historical examples of beadwork by a European and by an African artist of the Yoruba tribe show the beauty that can be achieved by combining these small glass units into objects glowing with light, color: and texture.

Chevron Beads

Beads traded in Africa for slaves. Top left bead: length, 5.2 cmPerhaps no other bead has been as popular as the chevron. First invented in about 1500 by the Venetians, they continue to be produced up to the present time. Throughout the seventeenth century the Dutch also manufactured chevrons after Venetian glassmakers escaped from their tightly controlled industry." For almost five hundred years, these beads have been produced in the many millions and in several hundred varieties. The examples here are from a special group collected in West Africa—the greatest repository of antique European trade beads—from 1968 to 1985.

Chevrons are a specialized cane or drawn-glass bead. They are formed by forcing or blowing a single- or multiple-layered gather of glass into a tapered mold with corrugated sides, thus producing points on its outer surface. This pleated gather is subsequently encased with additional glass layers of various colors, which may again be molded to produce further outer layers with points. Finally, stripes may be applied to the surface. Still viscid, this multilayered, hollow gather is then quickly drawn into a cane (hence the terms "drawn" or "cane') of at least six feet, cooled, and finally sectioned into beads. These sections are often reheated or ground to produce a more finished product in various new shapes. The illustrations here include chevrons with from two to eight layers and a variety of points; twelve was the most common.

An 1850s beaded bag from France. (The metal frame closure was added c.1920.) Tiny glass"seed"beads (one-half millimeter to one millimeter long) knitted with silk thread form the floral pattern. Although most European glass beads were exported, small, round seed and tubular"bugle"beads were used for embroidering clothing and accessories, a custom fashionable since the Renaissance. Length (top of frame to bottom of fringe), 28 cm. Private collectionFigures 1-3 and 5 on page 45 are examples of the first chevrons produced by the Venetians from 1500 to perhaps as late as the early 1600s.32 All of these beads have seven layers, with the first and third layers (core to surface) a trans-parent or translucent light green (fig. 9). Although the outer layer is typically a translucent cobalt blue, figure 3 demonstrates black and green were used as well. Molded layers with twelve points are the most common. 

Figure 4 is a rare star bead traded into the Spanish New World (especially Peru) in the early 1500s." Who manufactured it is unknown, although the Venetians are considered the most likely contenders. (This bead, in fact, was found in Africa.)

Heat-rounded chevrons of the type illustrated in figures 6-8 and 10 were apparently produced by the Dutch during the late 1590s and over the next hundred years. Figure 9 also seems to fit best into this group. However, all of these beads may be Venetian.

All of these chevrons are .uncommon and several are unique. Collection Ruth and John Picard, Carmel, California
Little is known about chevron production in Venice during the 1700s, and it appears relatively few were produced. Figure 11 may be an example from this period.34 In the 1800s, the Venetians again produced chevrons in large numbers with a great variety of colors, shapes, sizes, layers, and points. The vast majority have four or six layers, in red, white, and blue. Some of the more unusual examples from this period are represented in figures 9-26.

The red chevron (fig. 21) is an exception and was not found in West Africa. It is probably Venetian, from the early 1900s, and is one of several matched chevrons from a graduated string recently discovered in the United States.35

Writer - Lois Sherr Dubin
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