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Sell With a Story: A Brief History of Gemstone Beads

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Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but make no mistake: we love our gemstone beads. They were around long before faceted stones, and remain a fashion favorite to this day. Whatever style a woman chooses, gemstone beads can complete the look with a dash of color, a fascinating texture, or dramatic flair.

Gemstone Beads Rihanna Pearl Drape

Rihanna draped in pearls • Photo courtesy of Blossom Box Jewelry

Why do beads matter?

Beads were one of the first forms of personal decoration i.e. jewelry. Clearly, they answered a deep-seated need to adorn ourselves, to make ourselves feel special. And beads weren’t just for women. Men wore them too for many centuries. So where and when did it all start?

Dawn of adornment

In the 1930s and 1940s, British archaeologists working in Es Skhul, Israel, excavated perforated snail shells. How old were they? The technology to date the beads had yet to emerge, so the shells went to the Natural History Museum in London. They languished there until 2005 when an archaeological anthropologist from University College London rediscovered them and saw evidence that the perforations were handmade: the shells were beads. She had them dated with startling results. Previously the oldest shell beads on record were 35,000 to 40,000 years old. The Es Skhul beads were between 100,000 and 135,000 years old. It seems our love of jewelry stretches back at least that far — who knows if we won’t find beads that are even older.

Gemstone Beads Es Skhul

100,000-year-old beads found at Es Skhul, Israel • Photo courtesy of New Scientist

Is jewelry an instinct?

If primitive humans began making beads that long ago, could wearing jewelry be in our DNA? Okay, I’m just looking for an excuse to justify my next purchase. But you have to admit it’s fascinating to think that jewelry is essential to human nature.

The arrival of gemstone beads

Throughout the Neolithic Era (10,200 BCE-3000 BCE), tools advanced, and early humans improved their bead-making skills. Beads made from gemstones (agate, carnelian, quartz, lapis to name a few) had greater value because of their beauty. Primitive people shaped beads using an early form of bruting: they rubbed the bead stone against a harder mineral. They made the holes using stone tools to peck the bead from both sides. This time-consuming work may explain why they favored flat beads.

Ancient Carnelian beads • Photos courtesy of ancientbead.com
Carnelian Ancient Beads Carnelian Ancient Beads Carnelian Ancient Beads

 

Neolithic Citrine beads • Photo courtesy of ancientbead.com
Gemstone Beads Neolithic Citrine

Demands of the Market

As the market grew for more beautiful gemstone beads, bead makers developed better tools, honed their skills, and rapidly advanced their art.

Gemstone Beads Egyptian Amethyst

Beads from Egypt circa 2000 BCE • Photo courtesy of Thoughts on Jewelry

Necklace Fit For A Pharoah

Tutankhamun’s tomb dates back to 1323 BCE, and this magnificent bib necklace emerged from the tomb’s wondrous treasures. Notice the beautiful gold beads with the fluted oblong gemstone beads. This represents a high level of sophistication. And remember: this was for King Tut — not a woman!

Gemstone Beads King Tut Necklace Egyptian

Necklace, Tutankhamun’s Tomb 1323 BCE • Photo Courtesy of Tribal Stones Jewelry

Here and now

Gemstone bead designs are more popular than ever. To help you meet demand, Stuller carries coral, jade, lapis, hematite, tigereye, and onyx beads as well as a wide range of pearls that pair beautifully with gemstone beads. Our assortment of sterling silver and 14K yellow beads and spacers make perfect accents for elegant styles. Here are some examples to inspire you when a customer makes a request.

Gemstone Beads Lapis Necklace

Lapis and Malachite Bead Necklace • Photo Courtesy of 1stdibs.com

Gemstone Beads Malachite with Gold Accents

Malachite Beads with Gold Bead Accents • Photo Courtesy of 1stdibs.com


Shop beading supplies on Stuller.com

 

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2 comments
  • Berniebydesign [ permalink ]
    info@berniebydesign.com.au'

    100,000 year old beads !! So as a jeweller i can say i am in THE WORLDS OLDEST PROFESSION.

    • Elizabeth Raffel [ permalink ]

      Thanks for your comment. I was just talking with jewelry historian, Sindi Schloss GG (GIA), in Arizona and she says archaeologists are finding beads older than the 100K to 135K shell beads I mentioned in the blog. The information is mind-boggling. I’ll have to keep searching. Sindi and I also discussed the fact that personal adornment does seem to be in our DNA. I think that’s a wonderful fact to share with customers. I love a good rationalization for my next jewelry purchase! Who knows? Maybe you are in the world’s oldest profession.