Types of Beads Commonly Used for Jewelry Making
Beads are available in a wide variety of materials, and it can be overwhelming to decide what beads are best suited for your project. The Bead Chest specializes in unique beads with an extensive selection of organic, handmade, gemstone, and metal beads. Use this guide to help you get started.
Cultures from all over the world have been using organic materials as adornment for thousands of years. Materials sourced from animals, such as bone, horn, and shells, were plentiful and a great way to utilize all of the resources from animals killed for food. Beads made from seeds were quite common, as were those made from wood. Many of these natural materials are said to have healing properties and are used in religious practices across many different cultures.
Gemstones are among the most popular types of beads, but it’s important to understand the differences between minerals when you are using gemstones in jewelry as some gemstones are much more durable than others. It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the Moh’s Scale of Hardness, which classifies minerals on a scale from 1 (talc) to 10 (diamond). Most minerals that are used for beads are in the mid-range, but it’s wise to consider that beads made out of minerals such as amber, coral, pearl, and malachite are very soft (2-3 on Moh’s scale) and should be used in low-impact designs such as earrings and necklaces. Minerals such as topaz, garnet, amethyst, and tourmaline are harder (7-8 on Moh’s scale) and will be better suited for daily wear and high-impact jewelry such as bracelets and rings. Gemstone beads come in all shapes, sizes, and price points, and are well suited for all types of jewelry.
A pearl is formed when an irritant gets stuck in the soft tissue of an oyster, clam or mussel, and the animal produces a calcium carbonate coating to cover the irritant in order to protect itself. Over the course of several years, nacre will build up over the irritant, forming a pearl. Until the process of culturing and farming pearls was developed in the late 1800’s, pearls were extremely rare and dangerous to harvest. Today, cultured pearls are widely available in several varieties such as akoya, south sea, Tahitian, and freshwater. Pearls are very soft, so they should be protected from sharp materials and harsh chemicals. It’s best to use a soft silk thread and a needle to string them.
Mother of Pearl
Mother of pearl is an iridescent substance produced by mollusks (also called nacre). It is the same material that lines the inside of mollusk shells and forms pearls. It usually displays in beautiful shades of blue, purple, green, and ivory. Mother of pearl beads are widely available in various shapes and sizes, but keep in mind they have the same hardness as a pearl and should be handled with care.
Coral is skeletal material produced by tiny sea creatures. It is usually found in the seas around Japan, Malaysia, the Mediterranean, and Africa. The most common coral varieties are red, pink, and orange, but coral can also be black, blue, and golden colored. Coral is naturally matte but it polishes to a glossy finish, and is often dyed to enhance color. Like pearls, coral is softer than other bead materials and should be handled with care.
Wood is one of the oldest materials used for making beads. Some of the oldest known wood beads are estimated to be from the Neolithic era in 10000 B.C. Wood beads are generally very hard and durable, making them a good candidate for treatments such as carving or inlay. Most wood beads have a beautiful natural wood grain that is often emphasized by dye and polishing. Wood is also fairly lightweight, so it’s perfect for making large, bold designs that are not too heavy. Many different cultures utilize wood beads in religious practices, as they are said to help balance energy. They are often used for malas and rosaries, both of which are widely used today.
Some common types of wood beads include:
Sandalwood is sourced from the sandalwood tree that grows all over India. Some cultures and religions refer to it as the Tree of Life. It’s known for its strong earthy scent, and is frequently used for mala beads.
Ebony wood is a particularly hard, dense wood. It’s perfect for carving, and has a beautiful fine wood grain. It was used by the ancient Egyptians for carving epitaphs, and has been found in sarcophaguses and tombs. It has since been a popular material for making tools, musical instruments, and furniture. Ebony wood is usually brown and black in color with some banding, and holds a beautiful polish.
Olive wood beads are primarily produced in Betheleham by the local Palestinian Christian population, who have been making beads out of the wood for over 2,000 years. The wood is harvested from olive trees, which also supply fruit and oil. It has an especially distinct appearance that is blond and brown in color with a curled grain. Olive wood beads are often used for making rosaries.
Palmwood beads are made from wood farmed from coconut palm trees after the tree is no longer able to produce fruit. The wood grain pattern appears to look like stripes or brush strokes rather than banding.
Bone beads are made throughout Africa, typically sourced from cow or water buffalo. Historically, some beads were made from ivory, which is no longer legal. Today, no animals are killed for the purpose of making beads. It is usually sourced from elderly cattle or cattle that have died from natural causes. Bone is a very strong material perfect for carving and polishing. Bone beads are typically bleached, and often dyed. Sometimes they are dyed using a wax relief process called batik, which creates beautiful patterns on the beads. Bone beads have a similar weight to gemstone beads and are well suited for a variety of beading projects, such making strung necklaces and bracelets.
Horn used for making beads is typically sourced from sheep, goats, yak, cattle, and bison. The beads are often left in their natural colors, but are sometimes dyed or bleached. Horn has a nice natural luster to it making it great for adornment purposes.
Shell beads have been used for adornment for thousands of years. In fact, the oldest known beads are shells found in Israel that are estimated to be nearly 100,000 years old. Shell beads are available in a variety of unique colors, textures, and patterns. They tend to be more fragile and sometimes heavier than other types of beads, so it’s important to use a strong stringing material when designing shell jewelry.
Some common varieties of shell beads include:
Also called cowry, these shells are iconic when you think of shells used in jewelry. These shells come from sea snails and are sourced from the African coast. Historically, the cowrie shells have been used for currency as well as adornment. They have a natural porcelain-like shine, and some varieties feature colorful patterns.
Many conch shell beads are harvested from the Indian Ocean and then produced by the Naga people of Eastern Burma and North Eastern India. Conch shell has a rustic appearance and is usually found in muted ivory, brown, and some light pink tones. They are often inlaid with other stones such as turquoise and coral.
Also referred to as spiny oyster, these beads are made from the shells of mollusks. They are available in shades of red, orange, and purple, and are usually sold in rondelle or heishi shapes. They tend to have great texture and polish nicely.
Coconut shell beads are cut from the raw coconut shell after the fruit has been harvested. They are very lightweight and are available in variegated shades of brown for an organic look.
Beads made from natural seeds are one of the easiest types of beads to produce as many seeds naturally form in a rounded or teardrop shape and need minimal polishing. They are very lightweight and have lovely natural pattern variations. They are often used in prayer and meditation practices for many religions.
Some common varieties of seed beads include:
Rudraksha is the dried seed of a stone fruit producing tree that grows in Southeast Asia. It is thought that Rudraksha seeds are the earliest form of prayer beads, and they are often called “Tears of Shiva”. The seeds are heavily textured and usually a reddish brown color.
Imfibinga seeds, also known as Coix seed or Job’s Tears, are truly nature’s beads as they naturally grow with a hole in them. They are the seed of a tall, wild grass, and are so easy to grow that many people grow their own beads at home! After harvest, they just need to be dried out before they can be used for jewelry making. They come in muted shades of gray, blue, ivory, and tan, and have a natural pearly finish. In many parts of the world they are used as a food source, as they are very closely related to corn or maize.
Bodhi beads are sourced from bodhi trees found in Nepal. They are typically all one color and have a distinct vein-like texture. The bodhi tree is considered “the tree of enlightenment” in Buddhism, and therefore the seeds produced by the tree play a significant role in prayer and meditation.
Glass is one of the most versatile and widely used materials for producing beads. The art of glassmaking is thought to have originated around 3,500 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia, when they used sand quartz, soda ash, and limestone to form beads. The Venetians are thought to be the first to produce beads on a commercial scale, and created highly sought after beads that would be traded all over the world. There are three general techniques for making glass beads: wound glass, drawn glass, and molded glass. Today, most machine-made and mass produced glass beads are produced in Czech Republic, Austria, China, and Japan, while many handmade artisan beads are produced in Africa, Indonesia, and Italy.
Powder glass beads are made through a process of crushing glass fragments into a fine powder, then pouring the powder into molds and heating at high temperatures until the glass particles fuse together. Recycled glass from old bottles, vases, windows, etc, is often used. This technique has been used in Africa for centuries, and produces colorful beads in many shapes and sizes. Powder glass beads can be heavy and sometimes have irregular holes, so it’s best to use a strong stringing material such as leather, heavy cotton cords, or strong beading wire.
Some common varieties of powder glass beads include:
The Krobo people, located in western Ghana, are thought to have made the first powder glass beads. Krobo beads are made by filling molds with layers of finely ground recycled glass, then firing. Sometimes additional ornaments are applied and the beads are fired a second time, resulting in bright, artistic designs reminiscent of Venetian trade beads. Krobo beads are often made from recycled glass sourced from discarded bottles and jars. Krobo beads are very symbolic to Ghanian tribes, and each color is believed to provide a specific healing or protection property.
Made by the Ashanti people in Ghana, Ashanti glass also utilizes the powder glass technique. One of their most common beads is a glass saucer shape, available in a wide range of colors. The Ashanti believe that glass beads contain magical properties and powers, and use beads as a communication tool.
Roman glass is quite special as it’s made using fragments of Ancient Roman glass found along the silk road trading route. The Romans began making glass objects around the 1st century AD, and eventually made large quantities of vases, dishes, windows, etc. Glass fragments from these ancient objects are crushed and then molded into beads using the powder glass bead making technique.
After the fall of the Roman empire, the demand for glass beads declined and many of the Egyptian and Roman glass making techniques were lost. The industry regained traction during the 12th century in Europe and the Venetians began mass producing glass beads that would be traded all over the world. The Glassmakers Guild was formed in 1271, which enacted strict rules and regulations for glassmakers, and eventually all glass making factories were moved to the island of Murano. The Venetian glass trade peaked in the 15th and 16th centuries, with most of their business producing beads for export to Africa.
Some of the more common Venetian trade beads include:
Chevron beads are among the most desired and highly valued Venetian trade beads. They are made using a winding process, where molten glass is slowly wrapped around an iron rod in layers. The colors of glass are alternated between layers to create the unique patterns. The 6 and 7 layer varieties are the most sought after. Chevron beads have been made in Italy since the late 1400’s, primarily for trade in Africa. They are often referred to as rosetta or star beads.
Millefiori beads are made by gradually layering different colors of long, thin glass rods and fusing them together. It’s an intricate process that creates a flower-like pattern, hence the name Millefiori, which means “thousand flowers” in Italian. They are often cylindrical in shape, but some are rectangular, oval, and hexagonal. Today they are found in Africa, most commonly the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Ghana.
- White and Green Heart Beads
Heart beads, also referred to as Cornaline d’Aleppo or Hudson Bay beads, are a popular type of wound and drawn trade bead. They tend to be more plain in appearance, usually featuring only two color layers. They are made with a white or green core that is covered with a layer of colored glass. Heart beads were produced between the late 1400’s and the late 1800’s and were mostly traded in North America and Africa.
Many Venetian artisans who fled Murano ended up in Holland, where there were growing bead production centers in Amsterdam and Middleburg. Many beads made by the Dutch closely resemble Venetian glass, but they use potash rather than soda to liquify the glass. Dutch Dogons, also called German wound annular beads or donut beads, are among the most notable of Dutch bead creations. Dogon beads were named after the Dogon people of central Mali where the beads were traded. They are most commonly found in a dark blue or cobalt color, but can also be found in black, white, or brown.
Kano or Hebron beads are made in Hebron, a holy city in the mountains of Palestine. They are mostly traded to West Africa, specifically the city of Kano, Nigeria, which they are named after. Hebron beads have an unusually coarse finish due to the local sand and sodium carbonate from the dead sea.
Today, China is one of the largest glass bead producers in the world, but several hundred years ago Chinese glass was overshadowed by European production. Padre beads, also known as Peking glass beads, are a type of wound glass bead that were originally produced in China.They are commonly found in shades of blue or turquoise, and are characterized by large holes and imperfect shapes. Spanish priests (called Padres) began exporting beads from China to take with them on missions in Africa and America while trying to convert indigenous tribes to christianity.
Other notable chinese trade beads were eye beads that featured 3 dimensional elements, and coil beads. They often added lead to their glasswork to make the glass easier to remelt.
Today, The Czech Republic is the 2nd largest producer of glass beads in the world. By the 18th century, Bohemians were considered major glass bead producers and many glass beads were made to be traded in Africa. Czech glass beads are extremely versatile and typically very affordable. There are many vintage varieties as well as modern beads widely available for purchase. Czech glass beads can be used in just about any jewelry design; the smaller varieties work well for bead weaving and embroidery, while the larger styles are great for stringing projects.
Pressed glass beads are made using thick glass rods that are heated to molten and then fed into a machine that stamps (or presses) the glass into the desired shape. Then they are rolled in hot sand to round the edges and smooth the seams.
Fire polished glass beads are made by the company Preciosa in the Czech Republic. They are an economical alternative to leaded crystal, made from pressed round druk beads that are machine faceted and then heated to smooth edges and enhance the finish. Unlike other faceted glass beads, Czech fire polish beads are lead-free, and come in a wide variety of colors, coatings, and finishes.
Prosser beads were the product of a new “cold paste” molding technique invented by brothers Richard and Thomas Prosser. The process was sold to a french button manufacturer and first produced in France, although they would go on to be produced in Bohemia, Germany, and Italy. Intended to resemble Venetian glass, prosser beads were characterized for their lustrous sheen and uniformity. Sometimes milk was used to create a luster effect on the glass. They eventually were called Kakamba Prosser beads, named after the town in the Republic of Congo where they were traded. Prosser beads began to fall out of favor in the early 1900’s when more elaborate glass bead designs were introduced in Africa. They tend to have a worn appearance and uneven texture. Many Prosser beads are found in the ground when land is dug up for farming.
Modern Glass Seed Beads
Seed beads, or micro beads, are very small glass beads that are usually smaller than 6mm. They are made using a drawn glass technique where a strand of glass is pulled into a long cane or rod, then cut down into small sections to form individual beads. The individual beads are then heated or rolled in hot sand to smooth out the sharp edges. Seed beads are perfect for bead weaving, needlework, embroidery, and using as spacers between larger beads on stringing projects.
Some common types of seed beads are:
Japanese seed beads are small round beads that are very uniform in their shape and size. They are made using a winding glasswork technique. They are perfect for bead weaving projects, loomwork, and embroidery. The three major brands of Japanese seed beads are Miyuki, Toho, and Matsuno. They are available in sizes 15/0, 11/0, 8/0, and 6/0.
Cylinder beads are similar to round Japanese seed beads, except they come in a cylinder shape. Made using the drawn glass method, they are extremely consistent and very high quality. Cylinder beads are perfect for an even finish on bead weaving projects as they are extremely uniform, and feature a thin wall with a large hole for making several thread passes. Miyuki calls their cylinder beads Delicas and Toho refers to theirs as Aikos. They are also available in size 15/0, 11/0, 8/0, and 6/0, although size 11/0 is much more common than the other sizes.
Czech glass seed beads are not as uniform compared to Japanese seed beads, but they are quite a bit less expensive and are perfect for projects such as bead embroidery, where uniformity is not as important. They are usually sold on shanks, and come in a variety of different colors. Some beads feature stripes or patterns. Preciosa is the largest seed bead manufacturer and the only European seed bead manufacturer.
Crystal is a form of glass that contains lead. In the United States, glass only needs to contain a lead oxide content of 1% or more to be considered crystal. Leaded glass is easier to cut and has a higher reflection rate than regular glass, making it ideal for faceting. Crystal beads are often made for use in the fashion industry. Glue-on, sew-on, and hot-fix flat backed crystal stones are widely available, as well as standard beads shapes such as rounds, bicones, squares, teardrops, etc.
Swarovski crystal is widely regarded as the finest optically pure lead crystal on the market. In the late 1800’s Daniel Swarovski patented a crystal cutting machine that allowed glassmakers to cut glass similar to the way diamonds are cut. He then founded the Swarovski crystal company in 1895. Swarovski crystal beads have a higher lead content compared to their Czech and Chinese counterparts, claiming their glass is 30% and higher lead content. Swarovski crystals are safe to use and would only pose a threat if they are crushed into a powder and ingested. They come in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and special coatings, including specific colors to represent birth stones. Swarovski glass was popular in Hollywood and the fashion industry. In 1956, Swarovski collaborated with Chirstian Dior to create the famous AB (aurora borealis) effect.
- Czech (Preciosa)
The Czech company Preciosa is also well known for high quality crystal glass beads. Czech crystals tend to contain slightly less lead (they also make a lead free crystal), and the cut and clarity of the crystal is not quite as precise, but it is a great economical alternative to Swarovski crystals.
Many faceted crystal beads available today are produced in China. There are several factories in China that make these beads, usually unbranded, so they tend to vary quite a bit in quality. They do contain some lead content, although not nearly as much as Swarovski uses in their crystal beads. Chinese crystal is usually very affordable, but be sure to inspect it closely for quality before using in your beading projects.
Metal beads are widely used in all kinds of beaded jewelry, but it’s important to know what type of metal is best suited for your beading project. Base metals are economical, but they will not withstand the test of time. Precious metals are expensive, but are made to last.
The precious metals used to make jewelry are platinum, palladium, gold, and sterling silver. Platinum, palladium, and gold beads are extremely expensive, and therefore fairly uncommon in beaded jewelry. Sterling silver beads, however, are widely used in beaded jewelry and come in various shapes and sizes. Silver beads will tarnish with time, but can be polished back to their original shine with a tumbler or polishing cloth.
Gold & Silver Filled
Gold and silver-filled beads are an excellent alternative to more expensive precious metals. They are made using heat pressure to apply a thick coating of gold or silver to a base metal (often jewelers brass), and then rolled to bond the metals. Filled metals will tarnish, but can be polished. If well cared for, these metals can last a lifetime. There is less selection of silver and gold-filled products compared to base metal, but they are excellent for basic findings such as chains, spacer beads, and clasps.
Base metal refers to all other common metals that are not precious. This includes copper, zinc, nickel, aluminum, and brass.
Some common varieties of base metal beads include:
Brass is the most common base metal used in jewelry making, and is often used for plated beads and findings. Brass is an economical gold alternative, and can even be polished to a bright shine. It oxidizes with exposure to air and will turn a darker color for an antique look.
Copper is an extremely soft metal, so it is typically only used in costume jewelry and some artisan beads. Early copper beads are thought to be the first products of the lost wax casting method, which involves carving a wax model, burning out the wax in a plaster type mold, and then filling the hollow mold with molten metal.
Aluminum is a very lightweight base metal that resembles silver. It’s very easy to work with and the color can easily be changed through anodizing.
White metal is a fairly recent innovation, produced by using recyclable alloys such as aluminum, tin, zinc, and nickel. These materials are often sourced from discarded cans and roofing materials.
Artisanal Metal Beads
Many artisanal metal beads are made using base metals and a variety of manufacturing techniques. Tube and heishi beads are usually made using a winding technique, where the metal is heated and wound around a mandrel, then hammered and cut into shape. Round and decorative beads are usually made using the lost wax casting method. Many artisan metal beads are produced in Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya.
Some common varieties of artisanal metal beads include:
Baule metal beads are produced by the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Baule beads and pendants tend to be more simple in design, often featuring a flat shape with a metal tube running through the center. Like many other African metal beads, Baule beads are cast using the lost wax method, and often feature sun and moon designs.
Metal beads produced in Ethiopia come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they are especially known for producing tubular, spherical, and heishi beads, as well as coptic crosses. Many of the smaller beads are handmade using a winding technique, where the metal is heated, wound around a mandrel, and then hammered into shape. Most Ethiopian beads are made using white metals.
The majority of heishi beads produced in Kenya are made by the Borana Orono people of Northern Kenya. The heishi beads are usually made using scrap metal, and tend to be more uniform compared to Ethiopian heishi beads.
The Turaeg are a large subgroup of the Berber people that inhabit parts of North and West Africia, including parts of the Sahara. They are some of the most skilled metalsmiths in Africa, and are credited with introducing metalsmithing to Ethiopia. Using techniques passed down through generations, they still produce many of the metal beads that are made in Africa today. The majority of Tuareg beads and pendants are produced using white metals such as tin, antimony, and nickel, although some are made with brass and copper. They are etched and engraved, often depicting cross designs and celestial motifs. The cornerless cube shape is also a popular Tuareg design.
In addition to glass beads, Ghana is highly regarded for their brass bead making industry. The Ashanti people are the primary producers of brass beads in Ghana, and they have created some of the most intricate, and elaborate designs in Africa. Most beads are made using the lost wax method, which utilizes sculpted beeswax to create a mold. Designs often feature deities, animals, codes, and filigree work. The Ashanti often used reclaimed brass scrap that has been discarded, including metal from boilers, pipes, door knobs, and even pots and pans.
Plated metal beads are usually composed of a less expensive metal, such as brass, and then coated with a precious metal using an electric current. This finish will not last forever, but is a great economical option for inexpensive jewelry. Plated metal beads vary quite a bit in quality. Some brands, such as TierraCast, heavily plate their beads so that the finish may last for several years. Other brands may have a much thinner plating and will lose their finish rather quickly. Be sure to test your plated metals before using them in jewelry you intend to sell.
Although clay is not quite as popular as metal, glass, or gemstone beads, there are many varieties of handmade clay beads that are equally interesting and unique. Most natural clay found in Africa is a reddish-brown color, but in parts of Mali it is black. Clay beads were often worn by the poor as they were more affordable compared to precious stones, glass, and metal beads. Clay beads tend to be on the heavier side and have large holes, so be sure to use a durable stringing material such as leather or cotton cord.
Mali beads are made by hand using charcoal black clay found in Western Africa. The clay is collected from the hills around Mopti and Kati, and then broken down into small pieces. The clay is then ground into powder. Sometimes pieces of old, broken pottery are added to the powder to improve the strength of the clay. The clay powder is mixed with water, oil, and gum arabic to create a mixture that can be shaped, pierced and carved. Once the beads are formed, they are left out in the sun to dry, and then whitewashed several times.
Polymer clay is a type of modeling clay that can be hardened in a low temperature oven. Brands such as FIMO and Sculpey are widely available in arts and crafts stores, so it’s easy to make your own polymer clay beads at home using basic clay tools and a toaster oven. Some polymer clay artists sell their beads ready-made.
Plastic beads are not as common as they were in the mid 1900’s. Today, most modern plastic beads are often used for craft and kid’s projects. However some forms of recycled plastic, such as vinyl, are still utilized to make artisan beads. There are also several varieties of vintage plastic beads in circulation.
Lucite was originally invented in the 1930’s to be used for military aircrafts and submarines in World War II. After the war, it was used in the fashion and costume jewelry industries. Lucite is an acrylic plastic that is naturally translucent, but can be dyed in a wide range of colors. Lucite jewelry is largely associated with Mid-century Modern style and was popular from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. Acrylic beads are still made today, but they are no longer sold under the name Lucite.
Beads made from recycled phonograph records are often found in Ghana and Nigeria. They are cut into a thin disc or heishi shape, and are available in an assortment of bold, bright colors. They are often strung on raffia and worn stacked together.
Recycled paper beads have been produced in Uganda since the 1930’s. Several co-operatives employ local women to make the beads in effort to provide them with a regular income for their families. Each bead is rolled by hand from a triangle of paper and then a resin coating is applied to seal it. Some are also painted with colorful vegetable dyes.