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March 03, 2021 3 min read

Beads: The First of Luxury

Beads were perhaps the first of society's indulgent luxuries. The first beads were repurposed by ancient civilisations from natural discards: seashells, eggshells, seeds. The oldest beads were also naturally punctured, making them possible to be strung - stones and animal teeth were the most convenient in this sense.

Beadwork in the early ages used thread based from sinew to fiber threads from plants - the earliest samples of beadwork were unsalvageable because of the fast degradability of these materials. Archaeologists date the practice of bead embroidery back to as far as 72,000 years ago. Though a labor intensive craft, bead embroidery is well worth the work. Remarkable pieces of beadwork typically featured on ceremonial clothing as unearthed from archeological sites throughout Europe - one of these including Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting men and women wearing richly embroidered clothes. These Ancient Egyptians were known to use faience (material of quartz or sand that has been glazed) and glass beads. To don bead embroidered work was to tokenize your status as a superior. Alexander the Great was seen wearing a magnificent embroidered & beaded robe when he conquered Persia in 331 BC. During the Renaissance and Elizabethan period,beads were being incorporated into clothing, purses and other accessories.

Types of beadwork

Beadwork used in handmade jewelry usually involves two main forms: bead stringing and bead weaving.

Bead Stringing

This method may be the most straightforward of techniques but surely not the simplest. Stringing involves adding beads to any type of thread-like material - cord, elastic, wire, cotton, silk or any similar material. These strands of beads may stand on their own, as multiple strands or woven into a particular pattern using coordinated colours. These beads may be spaced with knots or 'spacer beads' of a different form such as pearls, which are often used.

Bead Weaving

Weaving involves using a needle and thread to stitch the beads into ornate designs. This is often done with small 'seed' beads - named after their resemblance to seeds. Beads used come in a range of sizes and textures, including non-conventional shapes like cubes, teardrops or cylindrical (bugle beads). The stitching of these beads onto their base can vary in their unique paths. Common stitches are the chevron, square and herringbone stitches, netting, spiral rope, dutch spiral and the peyote stitch, which is used by Native Americans in their handmade jewelry and embellished utensils.These stitches can wrap around its base to create either a flat strip, spiral or a flat circular shape.

Preserving the artform

Sewing with beads has been culturally sacred to many communities around the world. These beads tell stories with the geo-specific materials they are made from, while their weaving patterns represent the values and traditions of different cultures. Staying true to the artform's tradition of sewing by hand remains important if we are to preserve any of its rich heritage. Handmade jewelry's value lies in its irreplicability. No two pieces stand identical because they are woven together by human hands, each a product of human expression and artistic intention. Using one's hands is also a restoration of the traditional essence of work which was fair, sustainable and unbiased towards those with greater capital.

EDEN + ELIE’s designs are a modern interpretation of handcrafted beadwork, founded on values of authenticity, quality and ethical production. Their fine beads reflect years of history, sourced from one of the oldest seed bead manufacturers, and are fastidiously cut from glass to measure less than 2mm in length each. Such a delicate size demands great skill and care in sewing – too loose and the thread will become exposed, too tight and the beads may buckle and break – and feeds the imagination with possibilities for both sleek and richly intricate patterns.

Time adds to the preciousness of making something by hand, and EDEN + ELIE extends this to individually handpicking each bead. This fine selection is then sewn into gorgeous pieces of art that you can wear and boast. An example is the Striped Medallion Drop Earrings in Emerald Rose which showcases an intriguing circular weave with 24k gold-plated seed beads and a nature-inspired blend of rich green and fuschia pink. Pieces like this help carry the heart of our traditional artforms into everyday modern life – to celebrate, appreciate and simply enjoy – and in time, enrich and give inspiration to new eras of making in the future.

Sasha Lye

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