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The Birth of Mass Trade Bead Production in Holland

Today, the tiny island of Murano, Venice, is little more than a sleepy outpost of the historic city with a few colonial buildings dotted along its shores. However, in the 1600s, this picturesque island at the North end of Venice's lagoon was an independent commune, and the epicenter of glass bead production in Europe.

To say life in Murano was tough would be an understatement, for although the area was not mired in poverty, the Great Council imposed innumerable restrictions upon the glass artisans working within the small factories, including a ban on anyone leaving the commune without a special permit. Many applications for these permits were denied, forcing many islanders to flee. A further decree by Mayor Barbarigo in 1602 stated that only glass artisans who registered themselves, and were subsequently listed in the “Golden Book”, could continue production on Murano. This forced many more artisans out of work, and because they were not permitted to carry out glass production within Venice (as per a decree in 1295), many fled to Amsterdam and Middleburg in nearby Holland.

Amsterdam and Middelburg were the leading bead production centers in Holland, producing beads very similar in style to those of Venice. The practice was first introduced to Holland by celebrated bead-smith Antonio Miotti at Antwerp in 1590, followed by the establishment of factories in Middleburg and Amsterdam. Miotti employed both Venetian ex-pats and Dutch artisans, largely retaining the methods learned in Murano. Beads were of a similar style, with the exception that Dutch Trade Beads were made using potash, rather than soda, which was commonly used to liquefy the glass. Dutch Dogons are some of the earliest known beads to have been produced using this method, many of which survive to this day.