Historically, from the 15th century seed bead creation, development, and production was centred in the traditional European glass making centre of Murano in Italy, before finally reaching Bohemia, and then to a lesser extent in France and Germany. France was particularly noted for its faceted metal seed beads, prompting Miyuki to introduce their Delica seed beads in 1982 as a replacement for these antique French metal cylinder beads.Italy pioneered the process of conterie or seed bead manufacture, with much of their output used as trade beads by European merchants when exchanging goods with American Indians, Africans, and the indigenous populations of the many other colonial centres around the world. For a little over two hundred years the bead makers of Murano had a virtual monopoly on this process until the Czechs entered the market place in the 18th century. The process was based around the technique of drawing out glass, whereby a mass of molten glass was literally drawn or pulled into a hollow cane tube. The molten glass was gathered on the end of a tool called a puntile, then a bubble was introduced in to the centre of the glass, after which a second puntile was attached, before the glass and bubble were drawn out into a long cane. The stretching could be achieved on a small scale by one person working alone, or on a larger scale by two people moving quickly but steadily in opposite directions for up to a hundred feet or more!
The drawn glass tube would then be cooled, rough cut into small bead pieces with a guillotine, before the pieces were placed in a hopper filled with a clay slurry mixture to smooth the beads through the abrasive action of tumbling. They would then be cleaned and re-worked before being fired for smoothness and depth of colour. The peak of seed bead production in Murano was in the early 1900s when these beads virtually sustained the Venetian glass industry. Today seed bead manufacture is virtually non existent in Murano with production limited to a very few artisans.It is said that the ability to manufacturer drawn beads was one of the most important developments in the history of beads. It was certainly the first time that beads could be produced en masse from tubes of glass, rather than the previous laborious practice of making individual beads. Further developments in the 1860s saw the introduction of several new processes and machines which enabled glass works to add uniformity of colour and sizing. Mass production was fully realised in the early 20th century with the arrival of a machine that could automatically draw the glass tubes achieving even greater consistency in size.Moving on to the present day, if you were to visit one of the modern seed bead manufacturers you would still get a sense of the historic processes involved in the production of seed beads. That is once you had seen past the high tech computerised machinery and manufacturing infrastructure! You would basically be in the centre of a 24 hour operation, where molten glass is moved from automatic furnaces to a melting pot, where upon compressed air is used to force the glass through a shaped hole in the pots base thereby determining the outline of the glass column, whilst also turning the centre of the column into a hollow tube. This cooling molten glass tube would then be moved across rollers and drawn out to the required cane thickness by machine, with the speed of draw determining the diameter of the glass tubes. The tubes would then be systematically cut into metre lengths. These tube lengths would then be cooled, quality controlled, and automatically cut into bead sized lengths. The resulting beads would then be reheated with carbon powder to provide smoothness, before before being washed and then reheated in a kiln to give a gloss finish. Additional treatments, where required, would then be applied and heat re-applied to set the colours and coatings. The process itself hasn’t changed . . . just the mechanics and level of labour involved.