The History of Beadmaking

Over the next few weeks I will be doing a series on the history of bead making and the significance of beads in a variety of cultures from all over the world. This week we explore the long history of bead making. Where it came from, and how much it has (and hasn’t) changed in the last 500 years.


Beads have been made of glass for over 5,000 years. The discovery of fire was the essential step in glass bead making. There is evidence as early as 2340-2180 BC in Mesopotamia of a method known as “core-forming” where they used a metal mandrel with pieces of glass held over a flame. Gradually as the glass softens, they would wrap it around the mandrel forming intricate ornaments.

These early beads, or vessels were considered valuable and were preserved as they were placed in burial tombs. In Nuzi (130 miles north of Baghdad) beads were discovered that date to around 1400 BC. Even today, we make beads by holding glass rods over a flame then gently winding the molten glass over the mandrels. The invention of the blow pipe in gave way to the creation of the Rosetta bead and the seed beads which sustained the bead making industry in Venice for centuries. Beadmaking is truly an ancient artform.

Beadmaking in Venice

The history of beadmaking in Venice goes back to the days of Marco Polo when he returned from his travels with the beads of Asia. Local artisians took to their glass making skills to reproduce in glass the precious stones of Marco Polo.

In Venice and Murano, the beading industry has historically been a woman’s work. In the picture above you see the women working while caring for their children. During the 1920s – 1930s, the conterie (seed bead) industry sustained Venice’s glass industry. The wars took the men from the furnaces and between World War I and World War II there was little time to build up the industry. During the 1930s there were as many as 30 companies making the tiny beads, employing hundreds of women.

Types of Beads Produced in Venice
Seedbead – Conterie

Hollow tubes produced then chopped and refired for smoothness and color. Sold in shanks prestrung or by the kilo. Used in decorative jewelry and clothing. The peak of this production was in the early 1900s and today the industry is virtually non-existent in Murano.

Rosetta or Chevron

Produced from the canes known as Rosetta which had a center hole. First produced in Murano at the end of the 14th Century. It was made of a hollow cane and six layers of glass (white, blue, white, brick red, white then finally blue). It was ground to produce patterns of 5 concentric stars with twelve points. The canes were chopped and this production method increased greatly the quantities of beads which could be sold.

Later as this cane was produced without the hole and the Millefiori canes were born which today create the famous Murano Millefiori beads or sometimes known as lace beads.

Blown Beads (Venetian Blown)

With the introduction of the lampwork flame, beadmakers discovered they could melt the canes and then blow the glass. Today our spiral blown beads and beads with stripes of color are produced using the Filigrana Method where canes of glass are laid down and picked up with a blow pipe.

Lampwork or Wound Beads or Perle a Lume Venetian Beads

Often called wound beads because the melting glass is wound over a mandrel. Originally the Venetian beads were wound over a ferrous mandrel which had been covered with a mixture of silica and clay which gave the bead some room for contraction when it cooled and helped remove the bead from the mandrel. This material was originally known as “fango” meaning mud and legend is that it was, indeed, the mud from the lagoon.

In the 1920s copper mandrels were introduced into Murano by the Moretti firm and soon became the standard for making beads. It was considered an economical as the mandrels did not need to be coated and minimized breakage in removing from the mandrel because mandrel was cut off just below the bead and the entire bead was placed in Nitric Acid which etched the copper from inside the bead. However, environmental standards are adding to the cost of this process and many small beadmakers do not have the equipment, rather they take bags of beads to one or two shops who specialize in this etching process. Today’s beadmakers in Venice and Murano use both methods, using stainless steel with a bead release material for more delicate beads or beads with silver which tends to burn (turn dark) if it touches the acid. Murano beads are made much in the same was as thousands of years ago.

What is Lampwork?

Since the discovery of fire, humans have used the resulting heat source for more than a means to prepare food and stay warm. The ancient Venetians specialized in a variety of glassmaking, particularly beads.

The term “lampwork” is derived from the Venetian process “a lume” which means at the lamp, where in centuries past, they used the heat from an oil lamp to melt the glass. work the hot glass in a flame, or “flame working”. Today, we use torches that blend both fuel and oxygen, resulting in a much hotter flame and better control.

Lampwork glass beads are made by melting a glass rod in the flame and winding it onto a steel rod called a mandrel. The mandrels are coated in a special mixture called bead release or bead separator that allows the glass to be removed safely from the mandrel when cooled.

The basic process is unchanged from Venitian ancient times, as the Venitians coated the mandrel with a mixture of silica and clay, allowing some room to form when the bead cooled and thus allowed for easy removal from the mandrel. This mixture was originally known as “fango”, which means mud. Evidently, the substance was literally mud from the lagoon.

In lampwork beadmaking, a variety of materials can be incorporated to enhance the glass designs. A skilled combination of heat, gravity, and even sandblasting can be used to shape and form the beads. Glass rods of different colours, if melted together and twisted, pulled, or cut into designs create intricate patterns. Sterling silver wire, mesh, foil and leaf, copper mesh, cubic zirconia stones, authentic fresh water pearls, and pearl lustres are just a few items that can be added to glass when it’s hot to enhance a design. In the GIF above you can see me adding glass frit to the bead for added effect.

Glass comes off the torch in a molten state, about 1500 degrees. It is cooled until no longer glowing and put into a kiln to anneal. The annealing process lets the glass cool slowly over time, without going into “thermal shock” which toughens the glass up and prevents undesirable stress and defects in the glass.

When the beads are completely cool, they’re removed from the mandrels and cleaned with a Dremel type tool to ensure the holes are clear. They are then inspected thoroughly, and if all is well they are given the stamp of approval that qualifies this bead as a long lasting piece of jewellery.

Click here to see a small samples of the wide variety of designs achieved through lampworking.

Inspired by Nature, Bead Maker Finds Her Passion

Special thanks to Pirjo Raits of the Sooke News Mirror for this lovely article on Dragonfly Organic Art. Being a part of the thriving arts community of greater Victoria is exciting, and the beauty of the island is a constant inspiration.

The colours of the glass rods in Lori Steel’s studio are mesmerizing. It’s a rainbow of Murano glass in every shade under imaginable. The walls are lined with bins and boxes of beautifully crafted glass beads, each one meticulously made by hand.

Lampwork is a centuries old technique of making beads by melting glass by blowing and shaping with tools and hand movements. The flame comes from propane, butane or natural gas, the glass from Italy and the inspiration from Mother Nature.

Ever since the fifth century, artisans have been practicing the art of lampworking. It is different than glass blowing in that torches are used rather than furnaces. It’s a precise and complicated art, gaining popularity for the unique glass beads created by the artist.

Steel likes the reactivity of the glass and the fascinating results when other materials, like silver, is added to the beads. The metals stick to the molten glass and change the surface colour of the beads.

“I just love to make the beads,” said Steel. “I love the whole process of melting the glass.”

Steel has an artist’s heart and she found the inspiration for lampwork from the Sooke Fine Arts Show. She entered three pieces in the show and they sold. That was her impetus to try making her living at creating individual one-of-a-kind glass beads.

“That inspired me to go ‘wow!’ I could actually make a living doing this,” said Steel. “Definitely the Sooke Fine Arts gave me the push.”

Nature with all of its shapes, striations of colour, patterns and symmetry is her inspiration. Her larger beads can mimic rocks and crystals, leaves and seeds. She translates what she sees around her in nature onto the beads. She fashions individual beads, bracelets and earrings.

While at markets she demonstrates her art and chats with people about what she does. People are fascinated by what she does, as attested by the numbers who watch her work. She loves it all.

She hasn’t looked back and is, in fact, looking forward. 2014 was her first year as a full time artist and she is thrilled at the reception to her work. She is not a relative unknown, she spent many years doing stained glass and teaching others in the Metchosin area. She has a studio called Inspiration and she taught people to make  mosaic tiles and stained glass. Once she touched glass though, it was all over. Glass beads and the thrill of the flame and what it creates is her love. Courses, workshops and inspiring instructors have taken her to places where she perfected her art. The Arrowmont  School of Arts & Crafts, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee was where Steel learned many of the techniques and master lampwork instructors such as Corina Tettinger, Andrea Guarino and Holly Cooper brought her to new heights in creativity.

Steel has been in Sooke for 17 years and started Dragonfly Organic Art. She sells at prestigious markets in Vancouver, Calgary, Courtney and Victoria. She will be setting up her booth at Bastion Square in Victoria for the summer months and at Circle Craft, the Filberg Festival and many other markets across Canada later in the year.

Jewellery Cards for Gift Giving

Jewellery is one of the most wonderful gifts you can give to express your love, your friendship, your tenderness, and your recognition to someone you really care about. It really does leave a lasting impression. I offer pendentsbracelets, and earrings in a variety of styles, colours, and sizes to ensure that there is a perfect piece of jewellery for every taste and budget.

For any visitors who have seen me in person at craft market events or in Bastion Square in Victoria, you will have seen my presentation cards before. Each piece of jewellery purchased online through my shop or in person is packaged on a beautiful presentation card that makes it ideal for gift giving.

If you have a special someone who deserves a surprise, or if a major gift-giving occasion is on the way, make your way to the shop; You are guaranteed to find the perfect gift for the discerning jewellery lover.

Artist’s Statement

Each bead you see on this site has been handmade by me, Lori Steel, in my small home studio in Sooke BC. Melting colourful glass rods on a propane and oxygen mixed torch is how I make each glass bead. Once complete the beads are placed inside a computer-controlled kiln to be annealed. This process removes any stress from the glass so that each bead is durable and will last a lifetime.

Read more about the inspiration behind my process right here.

Coming Events

Organic Bead Making Process

Read all about the steps involved in the creation of my handmade beads right here.