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When glass first became widespread as a new medium available to antique craftsmen, around 1550 BC, it was a luxury item used either as an ersatz for semiprecious stones, or as an analog to stone offering new exciting colors unavailable in natural stone. Since one of the established uses for semiprecious stones was to manufacture ornamental beads, glass beadmaking was a natural evolution of existing traditions.

The first glass beads of the bronze age were, like most precious stones, monochrome. Soon, they became bichrome with the addition of trailed decoration. But as the period of prosperity of the second millennium came to an end, and the market for luxury goods dried up, the whole glass industry stalled for hundreds of years.

With improving general conditions, glassworking shops reopened, and with the 9th century came a new distinctive type of bead: the Aegean triangular eye bead, presenting three protruding eyes applied to a base bead. The 8th and 7th century saw an important paradigm shift from opaque, stone-like, glass to considerable experimentation with the translucence of glass. It is during the 6th century, which saw a marked expansion in glass production in general, that more technically complex beads such as stratified eye beads became frequent. One gets a sense that glass workers were driven to compete in technical prowess.

Trailing and layering would be the state of the art for the next three hundred years, until Hellenistic glassworkers developed and applied glass drawing techniques to beadmaking. Multicolored and concentric rods and mosaic bars considerably enriched the repertoire of bead decoration, and brought about a blossoming of beadmaking techniques. They also further divided the skills: the raw glass ingots could be made in one shop, the drawn canes or bars used for decoration in another, and the beads in a third, not necessarily in the same country.

Although the invention of glass blowing, around the end of the millennium, did not technically affect beadmaking, as blowing is not applicable to the manufacture of beads, it had a profound economic impact on all glass. The new affordability of glass vessels made glass a high volume industry, with increasingly uniformly high quality products. The economic machinery and the safety of commercial routes brought by the might and extent of the Roman Empire also made for a free flow of goods and artisans throughout the Empire.

With the decline of the Roman Empire came a slow decline in the quality of glass goods. Until the rise of Venetian glassmaking in the 15th century, glassworkers were by and large content with replicating the styles invented by their predecessors. With the exception of the new palette of brilliant colors developed by Islamic glassworkers between the 9th and 12th century, and despite continued strong demand for glass beads, beadmaking had reached a plateau.

Determining the origin and age of glass beads is difficult. Even when you are lucky enough to know the context in which a bead was retrieved, is does not firmly establish its origin, as beads are durable jewels that travel well. People in antiquity were avid for products from afar, and just as prone to collect items from previous centuries as we are ourselves are. Some styles of beads may have been made especially for exportation, and therefore be more common outside of their area of production.

Maud Spear

CARPE DIEM - Le bois vert - 44370 VARADES - FRANCE - email : - Phone : +33 (0)2 40 98 39 22
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