Porcelain Beads, Fire Polish Beads
Sandra J. Paluzzi
It makes perfect sense to me that the first beads were made of natural materials. As shells do not decompose over time, it is not at all surprising that the oldest known bead is a shell bead that dates back to 38000 BC.
That particular shell bead was a fossilized shell. Some shell beads come to us via fruits, such as the coconut. However, the vast majority of shell beads come from aquatic animals. They start their lives as the coverings for clams, conches, whelks, etc.
Shell beads come from the four corners of the earth. They sprung up simultaneously in many different isolated cultures pointing to humankind's innate desire to use nature for their own edification. The list of their functions seems endless. Shell beads have been used as currency, to seal contracts, as a bride gift or dowry, as a status symbol, as a mark of rank, to call tribal meetings, to elect tribal chiefs, and of course, as adornment. Different cultures have attached symbolic meanings to shell beads. In Kenya Africa, the cowrie shell bead is seen as a symbol of fertility.
In the Americas, shell beads are best known for their historical use as wampum. Wampum consisted of either white or purple shell beads. The purple were rarer and worth more than the white. The colors were woven together into geometrically designed bands. Interestingly enough, the Indians did not use wampum as money. Instead, they used them to confer rank, to seal treaties and for other ceremonial purposes. It was the early colonists who started using wampum as money.
Some shells lend themselves easily to beads, forming a natural hole for the threading material. Others require grinding, cutting and boring. Throughout history, possession of the more labor intensive, rarer shell beads has been seen as a mark of wealth.
There has never been a time when shell beads were not used. Today, there are a fashion 'fad' being used with leather for necklaces, bracelets and anklets. In a less stylish mode, it is impossible to visit an ocean front town and not find tons of cheap souvenirs covered with shell beads. These knick knacks range from necklaces, plant hangers and wind chimes to hot pads, etc., etc., etc.
Some shell beads are so plentiful that you can pick them up as you walk the shoreline. These beads can be bought for 1.00 a scoop. However, many types of the shells used in bead production are no longer as plentiful as they once were. For example, over harvesting has cut down the number of hard shell (quahog) clams left in the seas. Pollution also has taken its toll. The purple area of the quahog which is used for beads is smaller than it once was. Because this particular shell is tied to the food industry, steps are being taken to ensure its proclivity. People are experimenting with raising hard shell clams in aquaculture and an international Hard Clam Task Force has been formed to assess the situation and propose solutions.
Shell beads play a part in international trade. New Zealand is famous for the paua shell and several other island locations export shell beads. The Phillipines, started seeing shell beads as a commercial product in 1970 and they are now a world player in the export market.
Resources and References
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