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.