Sunday, January 22, 2012

Glass Beads and Baubles: Techniques Used to Make Them

The oldest and most common synthetic materials used for bead making are ceramics: pottery and glass. Many types of glass are used, and the end results vary with the manufacturing process. Most glass beads are pressed glass, mass-produced by preparing a molten batch of glass of the desired color and pouring it into molds to form the desired shape. Coating the beads with special metallic chemical coatings, such as Aurora Borealis, or "AB", gives the surface a rainbow appearance.
 Pressed glass beads (matte finish with an AB coating) 

Chunky Lead Crystal Ice Choker Necklace with Fire Polish Czech Glass
Fire polished Lead Crystal Chunky Choker by 
"Fire-polished" faceted beads are a less expensive alternative to hand-cut faceted glass or crystal. They are made in the Czech Republic, and have at least one facet on them.  These glass beads are pressed in a mold, then machine faceted and polished. The fire-polishing technique produces a scratch-resistant bead with slightly rounded facets. Czech glass beads have been made in the Czech Republic since the 14th century and have an excellent reputation for workmanship and quality. 

Red Swarovski Crystal and Silver 3-Strand Bracelet
Red Swarovski Crystal and Silver 3-Strand Bracelet   by talicreations

A more expensive type of glass and lead crystal beads are cut into precise faceted shapes on an individual basis. This was once done by hand, but has largely been taken over by precision machinery. Austrian crystal is a generic term for cut lead-crystal beads, based on the location and prestige of the Swarovski firm. Lead crystal beads have a high percentage of lead oxide in the glass formula, increasing the refractive index. 

Specialized glass techniques/types

In some cases, more specialized glassworking techniques may be applied, or a combination of multiple techniques and materials such as cloisonné.   

The cloisonné process begins with a bead where small metal strips called are soldered onto the base in a pattern to be filled in with enamel. The piece is heated in an oven and cooled in order to permanently affix the cloisons to the base. Next, ground, colored glass, or , is blended with water and painted into the sections marked off by the cloisons. It is allowed to dry before the entire piece is again fired in an oven. Multiple applications of frit and firings are often necessary to complete a single cloisonné work. Different colors or transparencies of frit may be layered on top of each other to create a desired look. Cloisonné is finished by polishing the piece smooth.

Aqua Blue Earrings with Crystal and Cloisonne Beads
Aqua Blue Earrings with Crystal and Cloisonne Beads   by 

Sterling Silver Coil Cats Eye Earrings
Sterling Silver Coil Cats Eye Earrings by twinkink

Fiber Optic or synthetic "Cat's Eye" glass beads have an eye-catching chatoyant effect across the grain. These beads are made from the same materials used in telephone fiber optic cables. These are created from quartz fibers which are fused together and machine-cut into shapes.

Dichroic glass is being used to produce high-end art beads. Dichroic glass has a thin film of metal fused to the surface of the glass, resulting in a surface that has a metallic sheen that changes between two colors when viewed at different angles. Beads can be pressed, or made with traditional lampworking techniques. 

Amethyst and Lampwork Bracelet by BaublesHandcraftedJewelry

There are also several ways to fuse many small glass canes together into a multicolored pattern, resulting in millefiori beads. Furnace glass uses large decorated canes built up out of smaller canes, encased in clear glass and then extruded to form the beads with linear and twisting stripe patterns. 

Lampwork beads involve a labor intensive process using a gas torch to heat a rod of glass and spinning the resulting thread around a metal rod covered in bead release. When the base bead has been formed, other colors of glass can be added to the surface to create many designs. After this initial stage of the bead making process, the bead can be further fired in a kiln to make it more durable.

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