People all over the world have been creating beaded jewelry for thousands of years. This type of adornment served a variety of purposes in different cultures, including symbols of status, a type of portable wealth and as a beautiful addition to clothing. As cultures changed and advanced, so did the type of beads created and the methods used to make them.
Two small shells made into beads are often considered the oldest example of beaded jewelry found. The shells, discovered roughly twenty-five miles from the Mediterranean Sea, date back 82,000 years. Ceramic beads with decoration were found in Greece and other evidence of this type of jewelry dating back 38,000 years was found in France. It’s clear cultures all over the world valued these small adornments.
Beads served several different purposes in ancient societies. The use of precious stones and metals caused them to be valued as trade goods. They were small and easy to carry, so they could be taken along tortuous trade routes far from their place of origin. The Roman Empire, which developed more sophisticated kilns in order to produce a more liquid type of glass, spread their beads east to China and Korea, north to Scandinavia and south to places such as Ethiopia.
Some societies valued them as status symbols, and signs of wealth and privilege. Those who created them also benefited from their popularity, such as Egyptian beadmakers who were supported by the patronage of kings and priests.
Materials used for making beads changed and developed over the years. Bone, stone, and wood were joined by glass and plastic as time passed. Techniques evolved over time as well. Daniel Swarovski, who hailed from a family of respected beadmakers in northern Bohemia, attended the “First Electricity Exhibition” in Vienna in 1883. Taking what he learned, Swarovski patented the first electric glass cutting machine. This improved the quality and also gave birth to the mechanized production of glass beads. This change enabled the sale of beads and beaded jewelry to the general populace, which had begun with the Roman Empire. Now the beauty of this jewelry could spread across the world and into all facets of society.