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Making Beads for Handmade Jewellery

For centuries, men and women have adorned themselves with precious metals and jewels. Today the modern jewellery designer uses a variety of materials, that may include, glass beads, gemstones, polymer clay, resin and textiles, to name but a few.

Firstly let's look at glass beads. The first glass was formed 40 million years ago by heat and immense pressure from erupting volcanoes. Nobody knows when the first man made glass came about, though it is believed to be around 3500 BC, with the oldest bead dating back 40,000 years. Glass is a versatile material that can be moulded and stretched to form different shapes; it can also be etched, polished and cut.

Millefiori glass, developed by the Romans, was made by fusing many glass rods together to create a cane. Once heated, these canes were stretched to miniaturize the pattern; slices were then cut from the cane to decorate the beads. In the 13thcentury the Venetians, who were very secretive about their glassmaking, moved the entire industry to the island of Murano. Although the Venetians dominated the glassmaking industry, other Europeans also manufactured glass beads, Czechoslovakia being one of them. Czech glass beads date back to the 11thcentury and are renowned for their excellent craftsmanship. Made from quality glass the vivid colours will not fade and are consistent throughout.

Glass making tools and materials are now readily available, with many talented lampworkers, making individual glass beads. The glass used for bead making is sold in rods and comes in a variety of transparent and opaque colours. Lampworkers use oxygen-propane torches to heat and melt the glass rods onto a stainless steel rod called a mandrel. Once the glass is heated it becomes soft and can then be formed into different shapes, using a variety of hand tools. Once the bead is formed it needs to cool slowly or it will crack if it is cooled too quickly. To do this the beads need to be placed between layers of insulating blanket or vermiculite heated in a slow cooker. Beads can also be annealed in a kiln to slowly cool.

Another material that can look like glass is resin, though it carries less weight. Resin belongs to the plastics family and is made from organic polymers that can occur naturally in tortoiseshell, horn and amber. Clear casting resin can be used to trap flowers and other inclusions and can be built up in layer. It can be coloured using translucent paste and can be poured into moulds of any shape. Once cured it can be filed sanded and drilled to give the desired finish.

Polymer clay is another material that can be used for bead making. It is soft modelling clay, made from particles of polyvinyl chloride, combined with plastisizers, fillers, colouring agents and gels. There are a number of brands available, in a large range of colours that can be mixed to give an even greater colour palette. It is cured by baking in a conventional oven and once baked it can be sanded carved and drilled.

Before the clay can be used, it must be conditioned to distribute all the ingredients. This can be done by twisting and rolling by hand or passing through a pasta machine a number of times. You can tell if the clay has been conditioned enough by folding it in half after it has been passed through the pasta machine. If it cracks on the fold, it needs further conditioning until no cracks appear. Once conditioned it can be coloured using alcohol inks, acrylic paint, pigment and metallic powders. Polymer clay also comes in liquid form and can be coloured using pigment powders, then used for stained glass effects and to add texture to the beads.


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