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The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation To Glass Beads

Posted by learntobead on June 17, 2020

Enroll in my jewelry design and business of craft video tutorials online. Begin with my ORIENTATION TO BEADS & JEWELRY FINDINGS COURSE. There are 18 video modules including handouts, which this is one of.

Not All Beads Are Alike

Not all beads are alike. When you see them in a store or a catalog or online, they might look the same in appearance. But appearances are deceiving. There are underlying quality differences which can be very wide indeed. Such differences will have a big impact, sometimes negative, on the success of your pieces.

Beads are made in many countries around the world, but few are made in the United States. Making beads is a difficult task. Bead-making is often done by workers who are exploited in some way, and this is a reality of the craft. Knowing what country the beads were manufactured in tells you a lot about their quality and usefulness. In fact, country-of-origin is your best indicator of quality.

[NOTE: Increased Globalization these days tends to blur geographical boundaries. What’s labeled “Made in Germany” might actually be manufactured in Pakistan. Austrian Crystal and Murano Glass might originate in China. Bali Silver might begin its creation in India or Turkey. Yet we still associate our understanding of “quality” by the country label stamped on the beads packaging, where we assume, that the primary “country” on the label of the product maintains its sense of quality standards, no matter where the product has actually been produced. So crystal labeled “Made in Austria”, which may have actually been manufactured in China, would have the higher qualities associated with Austria; whereas, crystal labeled “Made in China” and manufactured in China would have the lower qualities associated with China.

The journey of a glass bead might transverse 5 or 6 countries before it ended up on the retail shelf. One country might make a core bead. It may go to another country to do some shaping. Still another country to do some finishing. Yet another country for some coloration. And yet one more country to apply a special coloration effect. And, yes, still yet another country to get packaged up as retail-ready.]

Not all beads are useful for all projects. Beads come in all levels of quality and sophistication. Knowing which beads to select for your project, — whether you want to bead a professional jewelry designer, or not is a key skill every beader and jewelry maker needs to learn.

In this module, I’m going to focus on glass beads, and try to give you a sense of what “quality” means. My descriptions are broad generalizations, but will give you a good grounding in quality issues and considerations.

Picture in your mind a strand of 8mm round glass beads. We will call these “large” beads, as opposed to the “small” seed beads we’ll cover later in another module. For our purposes here, it does not matter what color or finish these beads are, only that they are glass, are round, and that we’re looking at several of them that are supposed to be the same bead, typically on a strand.

These are 8mm, Round, Pressed Glass Beads

Look at the glass beads in the image above. They are machine made (pressed glass). I want to give you a sense of what quality means, when it comes to glass beads. I am going to pretend they are made in different countries to give you a sense of what quality means.

Our criteria:
1) perfection in shape
 2) consistency in shape from bead to bead on a strand
 3) hole sharpness or smoothness
 4) hole size consistency from bead to bead on a strand
 5) whether hole is drilled through the center or not
 6) whether the color is in the glass, or applied to the surface of the glass using a coating, film or decal

CZECH GLASS: If these 8mm round glass beads had been made in The Czech Republic, we’d give them a grade of “B”. We would consider the price to be above average, by a good typical benchmark for quality jewelry.

NOTE: The “grade” and “price” refers to beads (and other components) for jewelry making purposes. The quality of the pieces you would use in making jewelry have to be of a much higher quality than those you would use to make something stationery, like a beaded Christmas ornament. All jewelry moves. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure and force on each component. So they have to be a higher quality. My reference in our discussions in on jewelry.

These 8mm round Czech glass beads would be considered “generally perfectly round.” They are not perfectly round, but close.

The beads on a strand from bead to bead are pretty much the same size and shape. They are not really the exact size and shape, just close.

The manufacturer produces thousands of beads, basically one at a time. At the point they are ready to get strung up as strands, they are piled in up into a huge pyramid on a table. Someone, usually a woman, sits there all day and eyeballs them and sorts them by quality. She separates the A-quality from the B-quality. B-quality beads may have some flat sides, the color may not fill the entire bead, the holes may have chips or other problems, the shape might be somewhat distorted. For the A-quality, she chooses which ones are similar enough to be included on the same strand, and the customer will think they are all exactly the same. This process of selection is less important for the B-quality beads.

The Czech beads have a good size hole. The holes from bead to bead on a strand are pretty much the same size. They are drilled through the center.

These holes would be called “generally smooth”. This is a marketing term. The hole of a bead is not very smooth. Instead it looks like a broken soda bottle. If I took a soda bottle and smashed it on the edge of a table, this resulting jagged rim would be what the hole looked like — rough, jagged edges, potential to cut your stringing material. Because you cannot see this roughness with your naked eye, marketers can get away with calling these holes “generally smooth”. However, you always have to worry about the holes of your beads cutting your stringing materials.

One last point. The Czechs use colored glass, so if the bead scratched or chipped, it would be the same color on the inside.

JAPANESE GLASS: If these 8mm round beads had been made in Japan, we’d give them a grade of “A”. The Japanese beads would cost about 3–5 times that of the Czech beads.

These beads would be “generally perfectly round”. They would not be perfectly round, but would be rounder than the Czech beads.

The beads on a strand would be very similar in size and shape, though not exactly the same size and shape.

These would have good hole sizes, and the hole sizes would be consistent from bead to bead on the strand.

These holes would be called “smooth”, and you would primarily be paying for a smoother hole. Note how I say smoother, not smooth. They would be drilled through the center.

The Japanese also use colored glass, so if your bead scratched or chipped, it would be the same color on the inside.

CHINESE GLASS: These round 8mm glass beads could also have been made in China. We would give these beads a “D” or an “F”. They would be 1/3 or less in cost than the Czech beads.

These beads would be “generally perfectly round”.

The hole sizes would be a good size hole and consistent along the strand from bead to bead.

We would call these holes “generally smooth”, meaning they look like a broken coke bottle. The holes would be a little rougher than the Czech beads.

Usually the hole is drilled through the center, but sometimes you’ll find that the hole is a little off-center. If off-center, this means the bead will more easily break when worn. It also means that the beads on a strand will not line up perfectly, which can be annoying.

The problem with the Chinese beads is that they tend to use clear beads and colored coatings. The coatings are very poorly applied. The coatings will chip off, and your beads will all-too-quickly look like chipped nail polish.

[Since 2005, the Czechs have gotten very much into coatings, as well. Their finishes seem more reliable, but will still have the issues of chipping off the core bead. But the coating technology keeps improving. For the Czechs, this has opened up great possibilities in color combinations and effects. The Czechs use their coated beads to supplement and complement their regular line of beads. ]

[NOTE, parenthetically: The best gemstone beads come from China. China gets A+ for gemstones. Their higher quality gemstone beads tend to be higher priced than gemstone beads from other countries. While India is catching up in quality and selection, they still have a ways to go. What I tend to like about the Chinese gemstone beads is that they are more careful in how they drill the holes. They know how to avoid the fracture lines in the stone, so that when finished jewelry is subjected to all the forces of movement and wear, they hold up well, and don’t break. Chinese beads have clean holes, and rarely have any cracks or wear at the hole. Chinese beads, when treated with dyes, heat, radiation, polishes and the like, seem more durable, and less affected by sunlight, water, detergents and general wear, than similarly treated ones from other countries. I usually try to avoid the beads from India, particularly the treated ones, but they are a lot less expensive. ]

INDIA GLASS: As a last example, we can picture these same 8mm round beads beads as if they were made in India. Here, we would give these beads an “F minus minus minus minus”. These beads would be a fraction of the cost of the Czech beads.

These beads would not be perfectly round.

Some holes would be OK, some too small, some too large.

Some holes would be drilled centered. Some off centered. Some somewhat at a diagonal.

These holes would be called “rough”. They can’t get away with marketing because your eye can see how rough these are.

While the Indians are beginning to adapt some of the Chinese production techniques, such as colored coatings and decals, to keep their costs down, for the most part today, you can assume that they have used colored glass, so if their beads scratched or chipped, they would be the same color on the inside.

So Many Beads, So Little Time, Which Ones Do I Choose?

This does NOT mean that you never use beads from India and China and only use beads from the Czech Republic or Japan. You always relate your choice of bead to what you’re trying to do — that is, your design goals, (and if you are selling things, to your marketing goals, as well).

For example, if you are making Fashion Jewelry, the Indian beads might be your best choice. This type of jewelry is often worn only once or twice and thrown away. Not only would the Indian beads be your best choice because they are cheap; their irregularities gives them a funky look, and this works hand in hand with Fashion jewelry. The Chinese beads would be OK because they are cheap, but there’s nothing funky about them. They look very machine made.

On the other extreme, if you were making an heirloom bracelet, and the person you made it for was going to wear it a lot, put it away, give it to their granddaughter or niece, and that person was not going to wear it, then the Czech beads might be your best choice. If the granddaughter or niece was, in fact, going to wear this heirloom bracelet, then, from a design stand-point, the Japanese beads might be your best choice.

From a marketing stand-point, however, if you were selling this piece, you might have to back down to the Czech beads. Say you presented your customer with a choice between a Czech-based heirloom bracelet and one Japanese-based bracelet, and the former might sell for $100 and the latter for $400. Four hundred dollars is a hard sell. To your customer, both bracelets would look exactly the same. The things that are different are either things they can’t see, or things that may not happen for 30 or 40 years.

So, in beading, nothing is perfect. At least should accept these facts: There is no perfect bead for every situation. No perfect clasp. No perfect stringing material. No perfect technique. Everything involves making choices and trade-offs and judgment calls. The more you understand the quality of the pieces you are using, and the clearer you are about your design goals (and if you’re selling your stuff, your marketing goals as well), the more prepared you’ll be to make these kinds of choices.

Yes, better prepared to make choices. That’s why you need an Orientation.

Making Beads By Machine

Pressed Glass. There are many ways to make glass beads by machine. The major way of making glass beads by machine is called “Pressed Glass” — basically molding them.

To oversimplify things, to make a round bead in pressed glass, you would fill two half cups with molten glass and then press them together. At the point they’ve been pressed together, this sometimes leaves a ridge, and sometimes a color change. While they are supposed to tumble the beads to smooth out the ridge, sometimes this ridge can be very pronounced. With the color change, sometimes this looks like a natural part of the bead; othertimes, it’s hideous.

The line down the center of the bead is where the two halves come together.

The Lesson here: Whenever you buy a strand of beads, you need to examine all the beads on the strand, to make sure you can live with what you’re buying. There will be production issues with some beads in any batch. You especially want to look at the equator or belly to be sure there are no ridges or hideous discolorations. You want to be sure there are no flat spots where none should be. That the shape of the bead is perfect and consistent from bead to bead on the strand. That the coloration is full and complete within each bead. And that the holes are drilled cleanly — that is, no chips around the holes of the beads, and that the holes have been drilled as a straight channel through the center.

The actual process of pressing glass into beads: The bead presser sits in front of a fiery kiln, with many rods of colored glass next to him. The tips of these rods are resting in the kiln, to make them soft. A die press (like two cookie cutters vertically hurling towards each other, then suddenly away again) is operating in front of the kiln, between the kiln and the bead presser. The bead presser grabs a rod, and moves the tip into the die press. The press stamps out the shape of a bead. Rods in the die press molds simultaneously create the hole. The presser continues to move the rod into the die press. Only a few beads can be pressed before the rod must be heated again. So the presser lays this rod next to him, with the tip in the kiln, and grabs another rod with a hot tip. The pressed glass cool as they slide into a holding container. The beads at this point are still connected to each other by the excess glass around the molded shape. The beads then get tumbled to break the beads apart from the rod. And they get tumbled again to smooth off the ridges. The quality of the beads relies mostly on the skill level of the master bead presser. These bead pressers vary widely in their craftsmanship.

Druks and Fire Polish Beads

I wanted to give you, at this point in our orientation pathway, a couple of terms for beads. The first is “Druk”. Druk means plain, smooth, roundish. Not necessarily just round. Roundish. You can have a round Druk, a Druk rondelle, an egg-shaped Druk. If you’re looking for a Plain Jane kind of glass bead, usually the word Druk will get you the furthest.

The opposite of Druk is called “Fire Polish”. Fire Polish beads have at least one slice or facet on it. Fire Polish beads start as smooth round beads and facets are grinded into them in a faceting machine. The faceted surfaces and edges can be splintery and sharp. So before these glass beads can be used, these surfaces and edges need to be smoothed out. One way this is done is to run the bead back and forth in a flame or a very hot oven so the surfaces melt, thus “fire-polishing”.

So you can have a round Fire Polish bead. A teardrop Fire Polish bead. A 5-sided Fire Polish bead. An 8-sided Fire Polish bead. A Fire Polish rondelle. If you’re looking for a faceted, dressier look, then usually the words “Fire Polish” will get you the furthest.

THE AB- AND OTHER COLORATION EFFECTS

Now on some beads, there is a special coloration finish called an “Effect”. The most common is an AB effect. AB stands for Aurora Borealis. The AB effect looks like a rainbow or oil slick. This effect appears on just one side of the bead — it doesn’t go all the way around.

There are many ways to make this effect on the glass, and the technology is always changing and evolving — mostly to keep the costs down. Typically on glass beads, a chemical is applied to one side of the bead, and then the bead is subjected to some source of heat and pressure. The chemical explodes on the glass, adheres to the glass, and creates a certain coloration. The effect is typically “fired” on the bead; it is not typically a coating. The fired finish is more durable. There are about 40 different coloration effects — such as celsian, azuro, zairit, valentinit, clarit, vega, ½ silver (cal), ½ gold (Apollo), ½ copper, among others — , and new ones invented frequently. But most often, all you see is the AB effect.

Now, they do create this where it goes all the way around the glass. To go all the way around the glass, they have to repeat the production process twice. When the effect goes all the way around the glass, the color is called AB AB or FULL AB.

If we are talking about color names, the color name for black is “jet.” With no effect the color would be called “jet.” With the effect on one side, “jet AB.” With the effect all the way around, “jet AB AB.” [On crystal beads, the shortform color name would be “jet 2X.”]

Over time, this AB effect will begin to scratch and eventually wear off. On most quality beads, this usually takes a very long time. Occasionally this happens more quickly than you would like. If this is critical to you and your piece, you’ll want to experiment with your beads before you use them. Take one bead and see how easy it is to scratch off with your fingernail. On some Chinese beads, I think they spray it on, because I can literally flick it off with my thumb nail.

Sometimes the word “Rainbow” is used to denote the AB effect. Sometimes this word is used to denote a similar but different effect called “iris”.

DRUKS AND FIRE POLISH BEADS ARE MEASURED IN MILLIMETERS

Druks and Fire Polish beads are measured in “millimeters”. Typically, these are available in 2mm, 3mm, 4mm, 6mm, 8mm, 10mm, and 12mm. Less common are 5mm, 7mm, 9mm and sizes larger than 12mm.

Rulers are marked in inches on one side and millimeters on the other. There are 25mm in an inch. Thus 6mm would be approximately 1/4 inches (25 divided by 6).

Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:

The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation To Jewelry Findings: Preparers

The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation To Jewelry Findings: Controllers and Adapters

Cleaning Sterling Silver Jewelry: What Works!

What Glue Should I Use When Making Jewelry?

Why Am I So Addicted To Beads?

A Very Abbreviated, But Not Totally Fractured, History of Beads

The Martha Stewart Beaded Wreath Project

When Choosing Colors Has You Down, Check Out The Magic Of Simultaneity Effects

The Use of Armature In Jewelry: Legitimate or Not?

Pearl Knotting Warren’s Way

Organizing Your Craft Workspace…Some Smart Pointers

You Don’t Choose Clasps, You Choose Clasp Assemblies

Know Your Anatomy Of A Necklace

Mini Lesson: Making Stretchy Bracelets

Mini Lesson: Making Adjustable Slip Knots With Thicker Cords

Mini Lesson: How To Crimp

Mini Lesson: Attaching End Caps, Cones, Crimp Ends

Mini Lesson: Brick Stitch

Mini Lesson: Flat Even Count Peyote

Mini Lesson: Ndebele Stitch

Mini Lesson: Petersburg Chain

Mini Lesson: Right Angle Weave

Jewelry, Sex and Sexuality

Everyone Has A Getting Started StoryThe Nature-Inspired Creations of Kathleen

The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation To Glass Beads

The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation To Lampwork Beads

The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation To Crystal Beads

The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation To Seed and Cylinder Beads

The Jewelry Designer’s Orientation To Choosing and Using Clasps

How To Design An Ugly Necklace: The Ultimate Designer Challenge

I hope you found this article useful. Be sure to click the CLAP HANDS icon at the bottom of this article.

Also, check out my website (www.warrenfeldjewelry.com).

Subscribe to my Learn To Bead blog (https://blog.landofodds.com).

Visit Land of Odds online (https://www.landofodds.com)for all your jewelry making supplies.

Enroll in my jewelry design and business of craft video tutorials online. Begin with my ORIENTATION TO BEADS & JEWELRY FINDINGS COURSE.

Add your name to my email list.

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