On vacation, I hunt down every bead shop and jewelry supply store within a ten-mile radius. Tracking down beads is a scavenger hunt for a delicious prize. The journey takes you to out-of-the-way places and introduces you to artisans and crafters of every sort.
Some jewelry makers enjoy finding the unusual cabochon that they can wrap with wire and wear as a pendant or pin. Every country has its own collection of polished stones that are cut into various shapes and some are drilled by the local lapidary.
Most cultures lay claim to a style of bead made from their natural resources. In South America, an outdoor market in Bogota, Columbia sells vibrant black and crimson seed beads with matching black stones. The cost: pennies.
In Mykonos, jewelers holed up in a tiny marble temple on a cliff, welcome shoppers to design their own necklace or buy ready-made versions hanging on pegs around the store. The Greeks are known for knotting collections of mismatched beads together on colorful string. For the treasure seeker, they answered the quest with beads made from tumbled volcanic rock found only on the islands of Mediterranean.
Throughout the regions of Italy, I popped into buildings, both in the countryside and nestled in narrow urban alleyways, where young apprentices prepared materials for skilled glass blowers. In a tiny shop huddled in the alleys of Venice, Perle E Dintorni on the Calle della Mandola has shiny metal moons, Murano glass shaped into food and faces, and fat discs of blown glass. Italy has an unrivaled collection of bead styles.
Stores and markets sell exotic and colorful Roman glass, Venetian glass, painted porcelain, clay and stones. These handmade baubles represent the history and abundant natural resources of this country. Ancient Italian artisans created and sold beads coveted the world over, and today the country is still a leader in producing jeweler’s materials.
In Asian countries, the jewelry maker finds an infinite number of treasures from painted porcelain to brass. Exporters working in Kenya have established fair trading for artisans who paint smooth clay in rich hues and real gold. The work they do often supports an entire village.
India is another feast for jewelry makers, especially those who love a bargain. This country mines precious gems in every color of the rainbow. Indian stone cutters are known the world over for expert polishing of exotic glittering precious stones like Peridot, Garnet, Amethyst, Citrine, Moonstone.
A summer trip to Croatia and the Adriatic uncovered a multitude of clay and shell beads to use in my necklaces and bracelets.
However, bead buffs don’t have to travel far from their North American homes to find exceptional riches. All over the United States and Canada, artists and lapidaries, or stone cutters, are manufacturing precious stones, metals and glass. They create beads of every color, style and cost. It’s up to you to take these inspirations and fashion them into your own design.
Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.