EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 277 - December 19, 2010 - ISSN 1528-6703     6 of 7

Collector's Corner: Beads

By Michele Alice

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Approximately 100,000 years ago in a cave in the Carmel mountain range of Israel, a human crouched over a pile of small shells. He spent some time forming a hole through each, for what purpose - decorative? ceremonial? - we cannot be certain. But the shells have survived the millennia as the oldest known examples of bead making.

Beads are considered the oldest form of jewelry, and have even served as currency. They have appeared in every culture, in every age, and have played integral roles in the cavalcade of history. Beginning in the 16th century, European glass beads were traded in Africa for resources including ivory, gold, and slaves. Glass beads were also traded to Native Americans, though the story that they were used to purchase Manhattan Island is thought apocryphal. It is believed instead that more useful wares such as iron kettles, axe heads, and drilling awls were used in the transaction.

Precious beads have been used by political and religious leaders not only as personal adornment, but also as symbols of their status. Even the middle classes have viewed the acquisition of certain beads as symbols of their "arrival"-remember Mrs. Cleaver's (Leave It to Beaver) ever- present pearl necklace?

Of course, not all beads are pearls, diamonds, or precious metals. In fact, the majority of beads throughout history have been made of much more common materials such as seeds, shells, and glass, while art glass, Swarovski, and Lucite are just some of the more contemporary beads that are popular with collectors

Needless to say, the sheer numbers of the different kinds of beads makes collecting affordable at just about any income level. Even ancient beads appear on the secondary markets in surprising numbers and at surprisingly affordable prices. Recent examples of online auctions were a Roman mosaic glass bead that sold for less than $3, one lot of 6 silver Roman beads that fetched $37, and an 1800+ year-old gold Roman bead that slipped by for just $131. (Check authenticity and provenance before bidding.)

One area of special interest to both collectors and scholars concerns bead sample cards. These were used by manufacturers, merchants, and salesmen to advertise the beads that were available for purchase. Sample cards are today considered invaluable in identifying the many loose beads that would otherwise remain anonymous.

Interested in learning more about this popular collectible? Check out the resources listed below, and happy hunting!


Beads of Glass

Beads of the World: A Collector's Guide With Revised Price Reference (A Schiffer Book for Collectors)

Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic (Beadwork Books)

The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present, Revised and Expanded Edition

Middle Eastern and Venetian Glass Beads: Eighth to Twentieth Centuries


Bead Collector Network - Link to website - "An online bead discussion forum for collectible beads."

The Bead Database - Link to website - Check out the Glossary, too. - Link to website - For artists, beaders, crafters - but check out the Study & Resources sections on Bead Museums, Bead Shows, and extensive Glossary, more.

The Bead Museum - Link to website - Collections include over 100,000 beads and beaded artifacts. Also administers (see below). - Link to website - "Read only reference site, administered by The Bead Museum." - Link to website - Check out this auction website for an extensive list of U.S. bead societies and organizations.

Illinois State Museum - The Frost Trade Bead Collection Online - Link to website - Nicely presented collection of bead sample cards and Native American beaded objects.

"Shell beads suggest new roots for culture" - Link to article - Article about the dating of oldest known beads.

About the author:

Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ eBay ID: Malice9

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