The original: As featured in August Bead and Button: Bead Soup
Thanks to Julia Gerlach, Bead and Button editor, for egging me on, LOL.
Saluting the Stripe
As a 3rd generation bead man, I’ve been surrounded by beads my entire life. After 25 years they are a commodity I depend on but trade beads intrigued me from a young age. There are many types of trade beads and, though I admire them all, I love and collect glass trade beads. I find the Millefiori and lamp work beads of the Venetian varieties to be beautiful. Of the Czech styles my favorites are Russian, Vaseline and stripe seed beads.
Stripe seed beads?! I know, most people don’t think of seed beads as collectible. They are plentiful, sold by weight, generally small in size, and challenging to work with. (I am considering bifocals!) Yet, as Vladimir Sulc, North American sales representative for PRECIOSA ORNELA, recently pointed out to me, stripe seed beads are essentially no different than chevrons. Both are made of composition glass in which layers of melted glass strips of one color are applied by hand to the base glass ingot while it is still hot. This same process is also used for white hearts and greasy seed beads, primarily produced in France and the Czech Republic. Chevrons have up to seven layers while for a stripe seed bead the contrast color only coats the base color once.
So, what are trade beads and why are stripe seed beads included in this category? Beads may or may not have been a form of currency, but they absolutely played a big part in African local commerce and ceremonial culture. A market was created for beads in Africa and they were obtained by trade, be it in exchange for fur coats, forms of labor, etc. As time passed and the continent grew, the tables reversed. Collectors and accessory makers in North America and Europe were now in search of beads, especially during the hippie movement, while the African traders were in search of blue jeans and other necessities. Trade beads and their folklore became the muse for bead store owners and enthusiasts while African culture was able to obtain its own imports more readily to satisfy the local marketplace. Seed beads, especially stripes and white hearts, were an affordable way to adorn one’s self in replace of chevrons and other lamp work beads. Stripe seed beads became more desirable as the price of chevron and lamp work beads increased. “Christmas beads”, a mix of mostly white-based seed beads with accents of yellow and red are a popular example of stripe trade beads. As time passed more stripe seed bead were seen in a typical African trader’s collection. The money needed to stock Venetian beads could be insurmountable for a trader. Bone, brass, African-made “bottled” glass became more abundant in a traders collection, as did stripe seed beads.
What makes stripe seed bead collectible? Although the answer is subjective, for me something is collectible when you just do not see it in the active marketplace. For example, of the Czech stripe seed beads, it is hard to find a red color white heart in a true bloody color. Also, a light brown (not Burgundy) stripe seed bead is more unusual. Seed beads from Murano, Venice are rare. When I first started working in 1987, I saw the remnants of Italian seed bead-making at our 37th street New York City location. “Societa Veneziana” was emblazoned on the Italian seed bead sample cards. White core Italian seed beads that are round and tubular with vivid colorful stripes are very unusual. I am least familiar with French seed beads, but they are known for their white hearts and old-time greasy colors.
Historically, stripe seed beads have always been affordable. They are sold by the kilogram, equivalent to 2.2 pounds. The smallest is 10/o at 2.4 mm, ranging up to the largest size of 34/o at 9mmm. Ornela, the Czech seed bead factory formerly associated with JABLONEX, merged with PRECIOSA, a worldwide leader in bead fashion and advocate for “traditional” Czech glass-making. The resulting company, PRECIOSA ORNELA, is still making stripe seed beads using the same old-world techniques. Mr. Sulc explained to me that stripe seed beads were always priced affordably. By keeping the range of merchandise comparably priced, all colors could be incorporated into beadwork without cost considerations. Now, because of inflation and the experienced handwork needed to apply the stripes onto the glass rod, stripe seed beads have become more expensive and appreciated in value.
Today, stripe seed beads are still exported plentifully to African and other third world countries. They are also used as rosary beads in third world nations. Followers of Santeria, a religious belief concentrated in Caribbean countries, many of who are African descendants, are avid users of striped seed beads. The different color combinations have different spiritual meanings and are connected to African culture and beliefs. Yet, we do not see much use of stripe seed beads in today’s more modern seed bead work. Recently I have been experimenting with stripe seed beads by getting them re-coated with silver oxide to create what is commonly known as “Picasso”. This has been a successful way to recreate that old trade bead look. It adds a permanent layer to the core glass. Beware! Traders may roll beads in the dirt to age them, but dirt will wash away.
I, too, love the sparkle of the “Hex” bead and the shine of the, Charlotte. Bead weavers, crocheters and embroiderers have created a new art form and have changed the look of common seed bead work. In the past, core opaque colors were the basis of tribal seed bead work, with effects like stripes adding layers. Today “bling” is king, but you are not a true purveyor without getting a little dirty. Let’s salute the stripe! There is no other seed bead with such a rich history.