According to scholars, bead-making and beadwork stretch back at least 40,000 years ago. Beads have been made from various materials including bone, clay, glass, and more. Ancient artisans often strung beads together to create beaded adornments like necklaces and earrings. Over time, beadwork techniques became more varied and advanced to include loom beading and crocheting with beads.
Archaeologists have determined that the earliest beaded materials were likely natural items like shells and seeds. Early Mesopotamians created beads by firing a mixture of powdered clays, silica sand, and soda. These beads, known as faience beads, and their production became popular in Egypt. Faience beads were typically shaped like cylinders or flat discs. Some ancient and medieval beads were regarded as talismans. Other beaded adornments and materials symbolized status. Many beads have reflected religious significance for the culture as well as the individual owner of the beadwork.
Prehistoric Europeans also used bone to create beads. In Italy, the use of Murano glass to create beads became popular as early as the fourteenth century. The artisans of Venice and the island of Murano guarded their glass-making secrets closely. Murano beads are closely associating with African trade beads. European explorers carried these beads to Africa where they became popular as a form of currency and were held in great favor. Nearly all the continents have extensive bead histories and their cultures are reflective of certain beading styles. Native Americans are especially noted for their beadwork that typically employed seed beads as well as other natural materials. Beads have been important culturally for peoples around the world since prehistoric times.
Even today, beads continue to be fashioned from natural materials, precious and semi-precious minerals, glass, paper, and even plastics. Round beads are common, but beads can also be formed in various other shapes such as animals or other objects. Beads can be faceted, carved, inlaid, and created with a myriad of techniques. The essential fact that makes a bead a bead is the hole that allows it to be threaded. Beaded decoration is, of course, still popular for jewelry, but it is also applied to clothing, handbags, shoes, lamp shades, and other household items.
Beading continues to be a popular art form. Hobbyists as well as formally trained artisans and jewelers work with beads to create jewelry and other artistic items. Some artists have created portraits using beads. High quality beadwork is shown in museums and sold in art galleries around the world. While beading has been popular for centuries, bead-making has too and has become increasing popular among artists experimenting with various materials to create beads like polymer clay and metal clays.