Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Currency of Beads

Beads are a medium to create and express yourself. At least I see them that way. 

I am often asked why I don't wear much of the jewelry I create. I'm not sure exactly, but I can say that when I bead it is more like creating art then designing for fashion. I suppose that makes sense given my love of understanding the history and culture of specific styles and patterns. 

While Native American beadwork dates back to prehistoric times, these early beads were crafted by hand with crude tools and tended to be large. The beads themselves were crafted from bone, quills, shells and stones. It wasn't until Europeans began traveling the Americas that the use of 'seed beads' in Native American designs appeared. Most explorers, traders and missionaries carried glass beads with them to use as gifts or barter with native people. Thus, beads became a local currency.

One story alleges that the 'sale' of Manhattan to the Dutch colonists (c. 1620) was for $24 worth of beads. Most likely the Native Americans thought that the newcomers were giving them a gift, not buying the land with their strings of beads. It is likely a cultural misunderstanding that Native Americans did not have a sense of 'owning' the land. They were a nomadic society. So the notion of selling land would be a large misconception of European settlers. 

Before the Europeans brought seed beads, the Native Americans were using shell beads. You can see their value and significance as archaeological findings will trace shell beads thousands of miles from seacoasts, which indicate trade routes among the ancient peoples. As seed beads were introduced they appeared through a network of trading posts but quickly spread through an exchange network among Native American tribes.

Beads became a popular trading item as they were light weight to carry along the trading routes; particularly through the northern woodlands area where treks were on foot with backpacks through the forest trails. Two types of trade beads were popular: large ceramic 'pony' beads (a quarter to half inch in size with a large hole to use as a focal) whose name comes from decorating pony reins and other horse gear. The other popular trade bead would be the tiny seed beads which supplanted the more difficult, time-consuming porcupine quill work.

The beads themselves came from Bohemia (Czech Republic) and Italy. Probably starting in Venice Italy where there was a flourishing industry dating back to the 14th Century. For centuries the Italians kept production techniques a secret, which gave them a monopoly over the production of glass beads. The beads were valuable and used as currency by European traders through West Africa to buy gold, ivory, palm oil and slaves. This is where the term 'Trade Beads' originates. 

Today the distinct tribal patterns blend into a more modern use of beads. Marcus Amerman is one of the most celebrated bead artists today with his work deeply steeped in his Choctaw roots. Born in Phoenix, but grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He has created a movement of highly realistic beaded portraits. He is an example that history can influence art, but take on a modern variation. I like the way he rolls. My beaded earrings here are of no specific pattern, but clearly have that Native American feel to them. I have been wanting to try this style and I've been playing with colors and bead types. 

17 comments:

Karin G said...

Great post and beautiful earring variations!

JoJo said...

I am nuts about beads. Always have been. When I was about 2, I shoved one so far up my nose it got stuck. lol My grandmother worked in a bead shop in Yonkers, sewing them onto gowns and tops that were sold in high end boutiques in Manhattan. She used to keep a cookie tin full of beads and sequins in her apt that I loved to look through all the time.

Annette said...

I always learn something interesting when I visit you! The red and blue earrings is my favorite :)

windrock studio said...

This has always been my favorite pattern for earrings and I love the dangle of them, too! It's late now but I will be checking out these links soon, always such interesting details that you so kindly share.

Duni said...

Fascinating about the history of beads! I do love this Native American earring design of yours - the red ones especially :)
p.s. I guess you got your mojo back!

Claudia Aguilar said...

It happens to me too I love the crafting and creating part of crocheting although I hardly wear my creations! weird I know! your photography is looking better and better :)

Miss Val's Creations said...

Thank you for sharing this history of beads. It is interesting to think of beads being used as barter. I love the Native American like styles you create. The fringes are so beautiful!

Patti Vanderbloemen said...

I hate to repeat other comments, but, I also never fail to learn something while visiting your blog! Coupled with your beautiful artwork, my visit is always such a treat for the senses!!!

Liz E said...

I've been to a few pow wows and of course my favorite part is checking out all the bead work. It would be great if more men picked up the beading needle. Lovely earrings! I could totally wear any of them they are have such a nice vibe.

Marcela Gmd said...

Beautiful earrings!!!
Have a good week, dear friend!!!:)))

Besos, desde España, Marcela♥

Melissa at bubbyandbean.com said...

So cool! And all the earrings are beautiful!

Amy S. said...

What a fun post and I love this throwback native american style earrings! It's funny - when our family watches post-apocalyptic type movies and my husband and son speculate on how it would be if we lost all our money and home etc... and I always say, we'd be the wealthy ones because I'd still have my beads! hahahah!

Memories for Life said...

I always love reading the stories behind your pieces! The red and blue are very patriotic :)

Natashalh said...

I spent years working at a historic site, the site of the original Charleston, SC settlement (1670-1680). We had fun looking over/laughing about some old records showing people "smuggling" trade beads by trading directly with Italians to avoid paying extra by going through England like they were "supposed to!"

Magic Love Crow said...

Great post! Thank you for all the information! Excellent read about the history! Your earrings are stunning! It's funny, you don't wear much of the jewelry you create and I have to admit, I don't have one painting I have created! My mom has my first one, because it was a gift. Hugs!

Optimistic Existentialist said...

These are such beautiful creations :)

Beauty Editer said...

I like! Thank you for sharing.

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