Glass beads were first created in Mesopotamia and Egypt
Glass beads were invented about 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and later created in Egypt, and ever since glass bead designs and bead-making techniques grew increasingly complex. The ancient glassmakers used a method known as "core-forming" where they dipped a metal mandrel or rod into pieces of glass held over a flame. The glass tube was cut into meter lengths and those were then cut into tiny glass beads which were turned and polished in a metal drum. The glass was made from just three components - sand quartz, soda ash and limestone.
In Europe, small glass beads were created in Bavaria as early as the 1st century BCE and the Romans produced and traded glass beads throughout their Empire between 100 BCE and 400 CE. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, Vikings operated sophisticated glassmaking operations in Scandinavia and produced glass beads, including millefiori.
As hinted at above, glassmaking was very much an Eastern skill, and glass-making traditions were already well established in many countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Although Venice was influential in these regions, Islamic glass didn’t have any great presence in Venice until the capture of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders on their 4th Crusade. This resulted in an influx of fleeing Byzantine glassmakers into Venice bringing with them skills and techniques that were totally new to Europe. By the end of the century, Venetian glassmakers had adapted many of these imported processes, alongside their own, to obtain unique results.
By the late 15th century, European trade had expanded around the world. Explorers and traders carried glass beads with them for use as currency or gifts and demand grew exponentially. To increase production, Venetians began manufacturing beads from long tubes of glass, a process used by the Romans in the 3rd century BCE. In the drawn glass process, the glassmaker formed a cylinder of molten glass and attached it to a rod. While the glass was hot, an assistant would take the end of the rod and run down a corridor with it, stretching it to as long as 120 meters before it cooled. The glass tube was cut into meter lengths and those were then cut into tiny glass beads which were turned and polished in a metal drum.
The Venetian glass industry held a near monopoly on the bead industry for about 600 years and Venetian glassmakers played a pivotal role in developing techniques for mass-producing seed beads. Glassmaking methods were highly protected, and glassmakers faced the death penalty if they shared the secrets. Because the demand for Venetian glass beads had expanded so greatly, the Venetians started sending the uncut glass tubes to Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia) to be cut and polished. Bohemia had been concurrently developing its own glass industry in Jablonec, where they had the natural resources needed to make glass - Supplies of quartz, which was mined, and potash from the regions forests, and a byproduct of the wood burned to heat the glass, made it the ideal location.
With new marketplaces opening up through increased travel and tourism the 1950s and 1960s have been an artistically memorable period. During the last decades due to inflated productions costs the production of bead making has shifted to Japan, India and China, with only the Czech Republic retaining a strong market presence in Europe. The few bead makers that have survived in Venice and Murano have found a niche at the high end of the market.
Glass seed beads have played an epic role across cultures for thousands of years. Miniature masterpieces, created from natural resources, seed beads have been objects of adornment, as well as function. They have represented power, wealth and spirituality, been included in rituals and ceremonies and treasured as currency, opening doors for global trade expansion.