Chinese glass beads, ca. late 19th/early 20th century, averaging about 5 mm in diameter. Although many think of them as "Peking Glass" beads, they were not necessarily made in Beijing. Photo: Valerie Hector. Copyright 2015.
I've always admired old Chinese glass beads. The shapes may be irregular but the colors are subtle. No two beads are exactly alike - each was hand made by an artisan equipped with rudimentary resources, who probably worked in a small cottage-industry setting. As low-ranking members of Chinese society, these artisans typically lived difficult and dirty lives. From this perspective, the beads shown above seem more like little miracles than little blobs of glass.
For more than a decade I've avoided buying the glass beads being made by hand in today's China. When I bought samples some years back, they cracked within a few months, probably a result of faulty annealing. Many of these beads appeared to be mediocre copies of Venetian lampworked beads. In time these copies circled the world, with negative results for the Venetian glass bead industry, which could not compete with the low Chinese prices.
Chinese peoples learn very quickly. Within a few years the cracks were gone. But I didn't trust that they wouldn't return.
Then, a few years ago, other Chinese glass beads began appearing in the US. It was no accident that they resembled Czech glass beads, because the Czechs had sold some of their bead-making equipment to the Chinese in full knowledge that they were equipping a mighty competitor. The Czech glass bead industry had been in decline for some time. Workshops were closing. The younger generation of Czechs did not want jobs in the glass bead industry. They wanted office jobs with greater security.
To tell the truth, my eyes recoiled at the first Chinese versions of Czech glass beads. I felt they lacked soul. Mirror-like finishes made their surfaces gaudy. "Look at me!" they seem to demand. I remember closing my eyes to get away from the glare. Really. The colors were also disappointing. Not very creative. No imagination. That tends to be the nature of a copy.
This year, things have improved. Take a look at the beads shown below. These are "copies" of Czech glass fire polish rondelles. The surfaces are still too reflective for me - too many white spots! - but the colors are more sophisticated. I actually felt the pull of desire so I broke down and bought some. I'm trying to decide how to use them in my work. I'd like to do something unusual.
Maybe next year or the year after, Chinese rondelles will acquire even more subtlety. I wouldn't be surprised. The Chinese are creative and resourceful people. One need only look at their old glass beads.