The History of Beads: From Ancient Artifacts to Modern Treasures
December 12, 20234 min read
You might associate beads with your favorite childhood bracelet, or beading as a fun hobby that you can do in your spare time. But where did beads actually come from, and where did they originate as decorative jewelry pieces? While it’s not possible to pinpoint exactly where beads came from - as many civilisations discovered them around the same time - we can take a look back through history at some of the cultures and continents that first discovered beads, and what they symbolized for each era and people respectively. Let’s take a look!
What are Beads?
You’ll likely either own or have owned beads at some point before in your life, so it might feel futile to answer this question. But what actually are beads? Used in jewelry making and even home decor, beads are round, pierced design elements, and tend to be made from anything from wood to glass. Beads also come in a range of different sizes - you can take a look at our full range of seed bead sizes for reference.
While the use of beads is commonplace, what does distinguish modern beads from their earliest iterations is how they were used: while modern beads are known as being diverse, decorative and most typically used in personal jewelry, ancient beads were once used for higher purposes, whether it be to ward off evil spirits or signal their social rank.
The Origins of Beads
According to archeologists, the earliest known beads date back to approximately 100,000 years ago, discovered in a cave known as the Skuhl Cave in present-day Israel. These ancient beads were made from Nassarius shells and are believed to be among one of the first attempts at decorative jewelry in human history.
But as we mentioned above, it’s important to note that in prehistoric times beads weren’t merely decorative; instead, they played a significant role in their respective ancient and religious societies. In Egypt, for example, beads known as “Funerary Amulets” were often integral to burial ceremonies, believed to protect and guide the deceased in the afterlife. In other cultures, beads served as symbols of status and wealth, or as talismans to ward off evil, such as the “evil eye” pendant also used by Ancient Egyptians.
As human civilizations evolved, so did their use and production of beads: the Indus Valley Civilization (around 3300–1300 BCE) in South Asia was known for its advanced urban planning and architecture, and this early craftsmanship also produced intricate beadwork: these beads were made from materials like gold, silver, copper, and semi-precious stones, and are more similar to what you might find on the high street today.
In the Americas, pre-Columbian societies - including the Maya and the Aztecs - also created beads from jade, silver, and gold, and these beads were often associated with religious and ceremonial practices; for example, jade was seen to symbolize life and death, whereas gold and symbol were seen to symbolize the sun and moon.
Who Invented Beads?
The question of who exactly invented beads is a bit like asking who invented the wheel; it's a discovery that occurred independently across various ancient civilizations, from the Mayans to Ancient India. While advancements in archeology might one day find the answer to this question, as of 2023 there is no single inventor or culture that can claim the right to have invented bead-making.
Rather, it's a craft that evolved simultaneously in different parts of the world: for example, in Africa the earliest beads were made from eggshell, bone, and ostrich shells, while in Europe and the Middle East, ancient peoples used stones, bones, and eventually metals to decorate their bodies. In the Americas, native cultures crafted beads from turquoise, amber, and even coral.
How were Beads Made in Ancient Times?
Given the lack of industrial tools at the time, bead making was usually pretty labor-intensive and required considerable skill in Ancient Times. Some of the earliest beads, which were typically made from natural materials like stone and bone, were shaped using primitive tools; artisands would use abrasives to grind the material into the desired shape and then bore holes using sharp tools, often made from harder stones or bones.
What are Beads Made Of?
The materials used to make beads throughout history were often as simple as what was readily available; for example, some of the earliest beads were made from naturally available materials like bone, shell, wood, and stone, as these were simple to use and source, and easily accessible. Even today, bangles and bracelets made with wooden beads remain a popular fashion choice; and bones…well, less so, but hey - each to their own when it comes to jewelry taste!
As civilizations advanced, the materials and techniques used for bead-making evolved alongside them: in ancient Egypt, faience beads - an early iteration of glass beads made from crushed quartz - became increasingly popular.
The development of glass bead-making also marked a significant evolution, and glass beading continues to be a popular and affordable choice today for jewelry makers looking for high-shine, versatility, and durability in their creations. While the earliest glass beads date back to around 2000 BCE in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, it was in the 20th century where glass cutting really came into its own: in particular, through the Austrian brand Swarovski. Swarovski used precision-cut glass cutting to create a crystal that resembled an authentic diamond - the “affordable diamond” - and the brand continues to be the benchmark for crystal-cutting and glass beads today.
Check out our most popular Swarovski Crystal Beads