Venetian Glass Beads: A colorful, secret history

Often referred to as a veritable Bead Library, our collection of Venetian glass beads embraces the colorful history of the bead making process during late 19th century Italy and the timeless beauty of the glass bead as an artform in itself.

The largest portion of this collection is the remaining stock from the famed Societa Veneziana de Conterie on the island of Murano, Italy.

Each bead tells a unique story - from vibrant reds often made with a mixture of gold and cadmium, to the historic chevrons which are renowned for their multi layered, polychromatic designs, and the revered blue seed beads that were once used in trade with the Native American peoples.

Interesting note: Aside from gem stones and turquoise, the color blue was once very rare in the native color palette, as it could only attained from botanicals like indigo and woad (which made it quite sought after). It was believed to be a magical color since the dye began as a yellowish color that would turn into blue - before their eyes - only after it oxidized later in the process.

Societa Veneziana de Conterie
The Societa Veneziana de Conterie was a consortium of sixteen bead making families who joined in business in 1898 and ceased production in 1992. As each and every bead was made by hand, they were able to keep much of the bead making process secret…although their quality was well known and their rich, unique colors were celebrated around the world.

Rare, unique (accidental) colors
Their factory included a huge, multi-storied building with a large central courtyard that functioned as storage areas for old, discarded glass. In a personal conversation, Wilma Mangum of Beader's Paradise in Blackfoot, Idaho, told me something about Venetian bead colors as they related to these storage areas:

"When mixing up a recipe for a specific bead color, there was usually an amount of “filler” that was used (this is sort of like making bread and adding different kinds of flour for variance in taste, texture, and color of the finished loaf). As the bead factory storage areas were full of glass canes from over-runs, different color lots, faulty glass . . . rather than just throw these away, the thrifty and knowledgeable bead-makers would use this extra stock as “filler” and this is what made possible all those gradations of color that makes antique Italian beads so beautiful. This is also why, even with old color recipes, the reproduction colors produced today just aren’t the same, for the most part".

The art of making drawn beads
The making of these unique handmade beads involved pulling a molten glass bubble into a long, thin cane (the trick was to maintain the bubble in the center of the tube, which would later become the bead hole).

Pulling was a skilled (and dangerous) process done by hand - some canes were believed to have been drawn into lengths of up to 200 feet (61 m) long - imagine what happened if one shattered in the pulling process!

Once drawn, the tube was then chopped (by hand) into individual drawn beads from its slices. The freshly chopped glass beads were tumbled in hot sand to round the edges, and using sieves of varying sized holes, organized into sizes.

The end of an era
Venetian beads were surrounded by an ancient air of secrecy (some of their processes were literally based on a death bed oath) and bead makers of this caliber were resistant to adopt newer technological innovations (like automating the cutting process). This, coupled with the vagaries of fashion, are thought to be behind the demise of some of the older bead-making enterprises like the Societa Veneziana de Conterie.

Fun Fact: New beginnings for glass art

The glass industry in this area is far from dead, however, and glass artists from all over the world have breathed new life into it. The American artist Dale Chihuly, from the Pilchuk Glass School in Washington did an installation in Venice where he blew huge, colorful glass balls and set them afloat in the Venetian canals. Wouldn’t THAT have been something to see!