Beads. Unless you grew up around them or acquired an interest in these small holey adornments, the mental image conjured up in your mind may well be neon colored round objects from Mardi Gras, or something similarly banal. Uninspired, pretty, uncomplicated. If however you’ve gone into the passion for collecting, or making jewelry from beads, you know how deep the rabbit hole goes. To both the uninitiated and the infatuated, I hope to introduce you to some of beadingkinds most stellar examples. For those who aren’t makers but appreciaters, these are a few creators who should be on your radar.
Collecting is something that not everyone does, but it can be a glorious habit. And if there’s anything in the world that’s inherently collectible, it’s beads. Ancient, ethnographic, antique and contemporary, the thriving ecosystem of beadology spans far and wide. For my part, I’m getting my toes wet in a tiny corner of that vast ocean, with contemporary beads, but one has to start somewhere!
In this case, my newest additions to the collection come from the many shows amalgamated under the nomenclature of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Taking place in Tucson, Arizona, the Gem and Mineral Show is actually composed of more than forty tributary events that take place throughout the city, in tents, in hotels, in conference buildings. Not confined only to gems or even minerals, the Tucson Shows have fossils, African and East Asian sculpture, contemporary jewelry, textiles, clothing, masks, tools, jewelry-making supplies, and of course beads.
To Bead True Blue at the Doubletree Hotel, the Tucson Bead Show at the Windmill Inn (both run by Garan-Beadagio), and the Best Bead Show, which took place this year at the Kino Veterans Memorial Community Center are several of the locations at which one can find handcrafted beads being sold. This year, with limited time and a guest, I only visited To Bead True Blue and the Tucson Bead Show. In this case, that was plenty to find excellent creators to purchase my treasures from.
The first thing to keep in mind is that with handcrafted beads, particularly those made by experienced artisans, each single bead takes a lengthy time commitment to create. These aren’t produced by a machine, and there is no formula to churn them out quickly. The skill of the artist directly transposes to the complexity and aesthetic refinement of the bead. With Terri Caspary Schmidt’s fabulous lampwork beads, both technical ability and a wonderful sense of humor combine to culminate in quixotic productions. Her most common motif, repetitious Escher-like bird patterns, have branched out and multiplied into a flowering slew of abstractions. In her dotted eye beads that are reminiscent of chevrons, a famous six century-old form of bead decoration, to her winged heart designs, there is a variation of her avian motif that ties the whole shebang together into a recognizable family of style. The bead I purchased maintains that stylistic element, with a repeated white pattern suggestive of wings winding their way around the bead’s core. What I loved particularly about this specimen was the slight curve Caspary Schimdt imparted to it, which is actually a difficult feat to accomplish. When I talked with her, she sheepishly admitted that there have been many failed attempts while making this design. As such goes with all true artists.
Michelle Davis of Tangible Light Studio is a favorite of mine for her simple and elegant designs. Plus, I find her little owl beads amusing. She’s also a relative neighbor, living in nearby Los Angeles. I bought one of her Sakura (to you anime lovers and Japanophiles, you already know that means cherry blossom) beads last year as a gift for my mother, and the subtle gradation of pink to white that Davis accomplishes is an art in itself. The tender brown branches and white dots that simulate the tree’s flowers are icing on the cake. This year, I wanted something for myself, and I found it in her recent Galileo series that is out of this world. By using a certain glassmaking technique, Davis produces an opulent surface pattern that looks like the surface of Jupiter, or some other celestial body. Each bead is unique, with no two bearing the same design, and I tustled between two examples before deciding on the one now in my possession.
My next impulse buy (actually, I imposed a budget on myself before the trip, and amazingly only went twenty dollars over, I’m so proud of myself) was from Julie Picarello, whose studio name of choic is Yellow House Designs. I am a sucker for polymer clay, which is a basically a form of plastic (PVC, in fact) that I used to play with when I was a child. When baked in a toaster oven it becomes solid, and by now is an established medium in use by amazing artists from all over the world. Its bright colors belie the complicated structures that can be made by someone experienced with the material. Just is so with Picarello. In the pendant now in my collection, she inlaid gold foil to accentuate floral and abstract designs, then used a layer of translucent clay to allow the metal to shine through. The most impressive part of her technique, though, lies in her modified mokume-gane technique, a Japanese method traditionally used for metalworking. In her own words, “Layers of different colors are stacked on top of each other and tools are pressed into the stack to form a pattern. Horizontal slices are then cut from the stack and formed into individual beads that are cured, sanded and polished.” What is most delightful about this technique is because the slices are horizontal, rather than vertical, each slice is different. Vertical slices of a stack will yield the same pattern throughout, while horizontal slices take different layers with each partition. In the magnificent example shown here, blood reds and ochre colors meld with yellows and tans, leading down to an abstracted sun shape at the bottom setting into a deep mocha-colored earth that looks like something out of the Australian aboriginal Dreamtime.
My last acquisitions were from Klew Expressions. Another talented polymer clay artist, Klew has a knack for making flowing floral abstract patterns with a mixing of surrealism and a glorious lustruous surface. Her beads are a feast of visual details, and her vivid imagination leads to a multiplicity of diverse series that each have a distinct vision. In other words, you can collect something from each series and continue to be surprised and delighted.
I purchased two beads; the one pictured here contains several miniature millefiori canes slices accompanying an azure leaf motif, wild hedonistic zebra stripes, coral oranges and deep olives as well as luxurious baby blue expanses to provide space for the eyes to rest. Millefiori is an Italian term literally meaning “thousand flowers”, mille meaning thousand, and fiori flowers. It was a glassmaking technique common to Venetian industry until it was adapted to polymer clay. The process is simple; by taking rods of glass (or polymer), and sticking them together, a flower pattern is formed. For example, to make a white daisy representation, a yellow rod would be used in the center, surrounded by several white rods, and lastly ringed by black rods which form the spaces between the white petals. Then the entire conglomerate cane is cut in slices which all will bear the motif. This is similar to the horizontal slice technique used by Picarello, except with vertical slices. In Klew’s bead, you can see three small white flowers with five petals right at the base of one of her azure leaves.
The best part of buying beads from a collector’s standpoint is you get a detail-infused work of art in a miniature and relatively affordable package. No bead here cost more than $36.00, even the large pendant. While there are some masters out there whose precision and technique make their work cost in the hundreds of dollars for a particular piece (and appropriately so!), there is a potent demographic of skilled artists with beautiful beads that all fall into this price range. Even an amateur jewelry-maker can afford to purchase one or two artisan beads, on occasion, to use as focal points in their necklaces or bracelets. And considering the delectable eye candy you are acquiring, it is more than worth it. At least that’s what I feel.