Venetian Trade Beads have long held prestige as a collector's item - valued for their survival of Centuries, and the colorful history associated with their production and use. Designs ranged from "watermelon" striped chevrons and Millefiori "thousand flower" beads, to intricately designed lamp-work beads in the 19th Century, yet all had one purpose; commissions by which merchant ships visiting Africa and Asia, could trade for valuable materialistic wares including palm oil, furs, exotic nuts and savory spices.
The History of Venetian Trade Beads
The production of Venetian Trade Beads can be traced as far back as the 12th Century Venice, Italy, when a relatively small guild operated from the Northern area of the city. The Glass-maker's Guild - as it became known, produced a relatively early form of Chevron (Rosetta) bead comprising of 5-7 wound layers. These were used by early explorers to the Americas and Africa, in exchange for goods and slaves to be brought back to mainland Europe.
During the early production years, Venetian Trade Beads were produced "on commission" for wealthy merchants, and were relatively simple in appearance. Notable colors included red, white and blue, while green and yellow were rarer. Glass dyeing was relatively unheard of, therefore metal ores were used to influence color. Tin produced creamy white, copper influenced green hues and rare gold produced a rich russet-red. Cobalt would also be used to produce the moody indigo blues within these stunning "star beads".
Exploring Murano Beads From Italy
It was not until 1291 that the majority of Italian Trade Bead production was moved to the North-Venetian Island of Murano, amid fears that the increasing size of furnaces represented a potentially explosive threat to the populous city. The thriving economy of bead production continued in Murano well into the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Chevron Beads are notably characteristic of layers created by the "winding" process originally used within Murano production. This involved molten glass slowly being wrapped around an iron rod in graduating layers, often alternating in color to achieve the star, or rosetta effect.
During early production, the number of layers typically ranged from 7-9, however this would later increase as more colors and techniques were experimented with. The quality of wound chevron beads was typically judged by the seamless finish. By the time Christopher Columbus had set sail in the 1490's, the demand for trade beads had become so great that a secondary production method began to be used.
The Glass Drawing Method
The method, referred to as "drawing" involved a long thread of glass being extracted from a furnace and cut (while still hot), into small tubular beads ready for cooling. The thread of glass would have been wrapped around an extremely thin steel rod, so the threading hole was already made.
As demand increased, there was less time for the cutting of the long glass tubes, therefore the process was out-sourced to the men of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). Long glass tubes (which could exceed 20 meters in length) were exported in their cooled state to Bohemia, where skilled craftsman carefully cut them down into equal sized tubular beads. These were then returned for shaping and polishing, to the workers of the Murano factories.
You will notice from our extensive range of Old Antique Venetian Trade Beads at The Bead Chest, that many appear beveled or faceted. This is in fact an illusion created by the striped finish. Venetian Trade Beads were often gradiated after production to create the oval and spherical shapes which feature on our bead-strings.
Millefiori Thousand Flower Beads
The term "Millefiori" refers to "thousand flower" beads, formerly known as mosaic beads prior to 1849. The practice itself predates the 19th Century, with evidence dating back to Ancient Egypt. The 19th Century revival was due to the practice originally being lost, and experimental techniques/ studies realizing it once again.
Millefiori Beads are created by the production of long, wire-thin glass rods (murrines) which are then fused together with those of other colors in a graduating process. This creates the layered, flower-like pattern which made these beads so distinctive.
Millefiori Beads did not necessarily overtake Chevrons in terms of superiority as a currency. Mass production in both Murano and Bohemia factories simply meant there were a greater number of beads exported for trade, in comparison to early Chevrons. Millefiori were also prized for their unique appearance; adopted by those within African tribes of significant status or religious superiority.
Of the Antique Venetian Trade Beads still circulating, it is thought that the majority are of Millefiori design - primarily because they were produced in their thousands.
Understanding Millefiori Trade Beads
Despite their popularity, there are certain types of Millefiori Trade Beads that are considerably more valuable than others. Our Old Antique Venetian Millefiori African Trade Beads here at The Bead Chest are demonstrative of what authentic beads should look like. Typically, one will find pitting, chipping and an uneven finish, along with dirt and occasionally fading of red and blue coloring. These are all exemplary of age, wear and excessive use.
Why not use the larger photo feature we have on the site, to inspect them for yourself? Our Antique Venetian Trade Beads are stunning examples of those featuring the earliest Millefiori design - a typically longer, tubular shape with a rougher cut. Snap these up quick because they are among the rarest, and most prized in the Millefiori family!