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Historic Beads: The Fascinating History & Origins of Beaded Jewelry

Tanzy Ward


The art of creating beaded jewelry can be traced to the prehistoric times. 'Paleolithic Age' or 'Old Stone Age' beaded jewelry crafted with great detail and skill were commonly created by many different cultures with the organic materials around them. The natural and locally sourced materials used to create artisan beaded jewelry often took time & a considerable amount of detail by hand. These amazing pieces of prehistoric history can tell us a lot about the tribes & cultures who created them. How the beaded jewelry was crafted can contain key clues that are important when analyzing the abilities and talents of prehistoric tribes.

(Bradshaw Rock Painting Found in North West Kimberly Region of Australia From The Paleolithic Age)

Examples of prehistoric beaded jewelry consists of a variety of natural resources used for decoration. Most early beaded jewelry in this period were made with bones, shells, and stones. Ostrich egg shells were often used in Paleolithic Era jewelry, and some of the earliest examples have been found in caves located in North & South Africa, and Siberia. The Nassarius shell beads are between 100,000-75,000 years old, & were often made from sea snails. These beaded jewelry pieces were discovered in several regions, including North Africa, South Africa, & Israel. When handmade prehistoric adornments are discovered, it allows us to analyze how the early groups socially communicated & lived. Nassarius shell beads were used for a variety of reasons, which includes trading with other tribes. Through trading and interaction with other groups, these prehistoric tribes likely shared similar languages, personal values, skills, and sentimental items like beaded jewelry.  

(Ostrich eggshell beads found discovered from Border Cave in South Africa. Photo Courtesy of Lucinda Blackwell.)

 As time went on, humans discovered more advanced ways to create beaded jewelry. During the Bronze Age (3000 BC-1200 BC), there was immense  progress in metalworking. The Bronze Age includes three periods: The Early Bronze Age, Middle Bronze Age, & Late Bronze Age. Humans developed new ways to make metals more durable. The process of creating bronze included melting metals like copper, adding tin, then cooling it. This innovation helped many different cultures across the globe use metals for creating a variety of different items. The Bronze Age not only introduced using metal for everyday uses and life, but was also an innovative period in history for jewelry as well. Each society and culture began to create more advanced artistic metal jewelry in their own way. Bronze jewelry consisted of intricate designs added to the metals, which included twisting, spiraling, and forging methods. Gold and bronze metals showcased a high level of artisan skill and quality. Common Bronze Age designs that were seen in different cultural jewelry were the 'torc/torque' bracelet, half moon-shaped earrings, and gorget necklaces created in the Late Bronze Age. The process of drilling holes into a variety of stones and metals evolved during the Bronze Age. Different cultures often traded precious metals and new stones with one another, and handcrafted jewelry created with rare beads became a very popular market globally. Bronze Age beaded jewelry were created in an assortment of sizes and shapes, and included new decorative designs etched into the beads. Innovative processes such as double drilling allowed more detailed designs and a smoother process for holes to be created in beads. 

(Late Bronze Age Beaded Amber Necklace & Metal Bracelets & Dress Fasteners.C. 900-700 BC. Museum of Archaeology)
The growing market for beaded jewelry also was used for trading purposes as well. In places like Ancient Africa, beaded jewelry was used as currency to buy crops, and for ceremonial rituals. 
In ancient Egypt, sentimental beaded jewelry created from precious stones like Lapis Lazuli,Carnelian, Turquoise, and quartz have been found in the tombs of kings and queens. Ancient collar necklaces called 'wesekh' meaning 'the broad one' were worn, and consisted of beads shaped into tubular and teardrop designs. Often times, beaded jewelry told a story or represented symbolic messages in different cultures. These sentimental beads were intricately designed with specific patterns & detailing that represented different stories. Native American and African tribes like the Maasai in Kenya & Cherokee in North America have created beaded jewelry that can represent stories handed down from generation to generation, marital status, and the birth of a child.
(The Ancient Egyptian Beaded Collar of Queen Khnum-et,,Flickr:Ancient Egyptian Jewelry)
(Antique  handcrafted Baltic Amber beaded necklace from the Art Nouveau Era. Zanathia Jewelry Collection)
The mass production of beaded jewelry became popular during the 1800's, and has continued to be one of the most sought after markets for handcrafted jewelry all around the world. Presently, beaded jewelry are still great collector's items due to the intricate detailing and time it takes for creating the pieces by hand. Many antique and vintage beaded jewelry adornments were created in a sentimental way that compliments it's historic value. Modernly, the preservation and importance of beaded jewelry from previous ages are still relevant in today's highly sought after handcrafted market.  

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