Glass jewelry has been around for thousands of years, to decorate necks, fingers, ears and clothes of ladies and gentlemen, rich and poor, all over the world. They are adorning ladies of Masai in Africa, of Dayak in Borneo or of Hopi in the New World. Like drops of light, colorful beads are woven, strung, melted or embedded to form thousands of shapes and forms, often kept in the same family or tribe for hundreds of years.
It all starts with a bag of sand. It is truly fascinating how human ingenuity could transform what is basically ordinary silica sand, with some additional ingredients and a lot of fire, into such a magical medium as glass. It is even more fascinating to see the result of that same ingenuity, imagination and vision, which transformed glass into a number of different forms, using techniques invented through history. And to make the story even more fascinating, most of the glass jewelry making techniques were invented on a small island of Murano, near Venice in Italy. Once invented, the techniques remained more or less the same through centuries.
There are several major types of beads that are used all over the world to make glass jewelry.
Seed bead or coterie
Seed beads are made from hollow thin glass tubes that are cut very fine and then re-fired to smooth the edges and add color. They are used to make intricate glass jewelry and festive clothes, especially wedding gowns. Seed beads have been used for centuries all over the world, and in many different parts of the world they became a part of native culture and art expression. Contemporary artists and artisans are also using seed beads to create jewelry which is limited in shape and form only by the artists’ imagination. In the past, making bead jewelry in Murano was the job of women, while all other aspects of Murano glass making were almost exclusively the domain of men.
Rosetta or Chevron beads
Rosetta beads were invented in Murano in the 14th century. They are made similarly to seed beads, from hollow glass canes. The canes were formed from six layers of glass of distinctive colors: white, blue, white, brick red, white and blue again. Once cut, the canes were made into beads with patterns of 5 concentric circles with twelve points.
Millefiori beads are made by melting together canes of different colors, which were cut once cold, to produce intricate patterns, which resemble lace. They are one of the most famous products of Murano glass and are used in many spectacular ways to make extremely beautiful glass jewelry and works of art.
Invention of lampwork technique, which allowed glass makers to heat glass with an oil lamp and shape it with different tools while hot, offered bead makers a whole new field of creativity. They found out that they could melt already produced canes and then blow the glass, creating very intricate shapes, which were then cut into beads. This method is called Filigrana, and is now copied all over the world.
Some contemporary artists are using this ancient Murano glass technique to produce spectacular, but not always wearable, glass jewelry. It is not easy to hang around the neck a necklace made of fragile large sky blue blown beads, like those made by well-known glass artist Giorgio Vigna, shown recently at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.
Each blown bead has to be made by hand and each is a piece of art in itself, even before artists add their own imagination to their placement. Some contemporary glass artists blow their own beads, but many import them from Murano.
Lampwork or Perle a Lume Beads
Lampwork is also used to make wound beads, made by melting glass over a mandrel (a core). Originally, the Murano beads were wound over a ferrous mandrel called “fango.” Since this word means mud in Italian, it is said that the mud was taken from the Venice lagoon, adding to the mystery of these beautiful beads.
Since the Moretti Murano family started using copper mandrel in 1920s, this method became standard in making wound beads, and it also allowed for some interesting forms. The mandrel was cut off just below the bead and the bead was dunked in nitric acid. The acid dissolved the copper inside the bead and etched the interior surface in interesting patterns. Today, most Murano glass bead makers use stainless steel or silver, for more delicate beads.