Stamford, Connecticut — Beads have been around nearly as long as humans and are a part of almost every culture. They’ve been made of bones, rocks, wood, metals, glass, precious stones and plastic. They are religious symbols, talismen and currency. They decorate necks, ears, wrists, ankles and bellies.
And now, after 30,000 years, beads are hotter than ever. They proliferate on purses, lampshades, blue jeans, sweaters, evening gowns and pillows, lending a luxurious and exotic touch.
But to a group of little girls in New Canaan, stringing pretty beads together to make a necklace is simply a fun way to pass an afternoon.
“I want these,” says Elizabeth Anderson, pointing to several vials of brightly colored “seed beads.” She’s invited several friends to her 8th birthday party at the Bead Bar in New Canaan, where her guests are collecting the beads they will use to make their one-of-a-kind pieces.
“The girls are all into beading and jewelry, and to make their own is a thrill,” says Jamie Anderson, Elizabeth’s mother.
The Bead Bar is part of Art and Soul pottery-painting studio, on Main Street. Owner Meredith Malaga of Stamford, a painter, bought Art and Soul last year, brightening the big room and adding gallery space for local artists. She was inspired to add the Bead Bar to the business after her friend, Rachel Leslie, returned from a honeymoon in South Africa wearing an African beaded bracelet that Malaga admired. “After I left the store, Meredith was calling me on the cell phone saying, ‘We could open a beading bar!’ ” says Leslie.
When clients visit the Bead Bar, they pay for the beads they use as well as a flat $5 fee for the studio time, which includes help from Leslie, who’s been beading for years.
“I’ve been making jewelry since I was 17,” says Leslie, who also teaches high school English in New York. “I used to travel to concerts and sell jewelry I made in the parking lots, like at Grateful Dead shows.”
She’ll guide you through selecting the beads, choosing the stringing material, picking a clasp and actually making the piece. “Sometimes people have an idea of what they want when they come in,” she says. “But sometimes they’re overwhelmed.”
The selection is huge. Leslie buys beads every two weeks in Manhattan, as well as acquiring them other ways, such as from her mother-in-law in South Africa and through the Internet. Clear canisters of colored glass beads line the shop walls, which are also stocked with vials of tiny “seed beads” and practically every size and material in between. A sample of each bead is glued to a piece of velvet, so you can see and feel the bead up close before you choose. The stringing material can be nylon-coated wire, clear elastic, satin, leather (in several colors), hemp, waxed linen or “memory wire,” which is flexible but retains its shape and is hugely popular for bracelets teenagers like to make. The shop also has a variety of earring wires and posts.
Pieces can be as inexpensive as $15 to $20, with seed beads, or can range up to $85 or more if made with semiprecious stones or the more costly metallic beads.
The shop hosts a lot of girls’ birthday parties, but Malaga would like to attract more adults. Some of Leslie’s finished pieces are on sale at the store, and are as sophisticated and chic as anything found in a pricey boutique.
Malaga is planning to combine the two facets of her studio by supplying ceramic beads that customers can paint themselves. Then she’ll glaze and fire them, and the customers will return to make jewelry with them.
She knows her new business is hitting the beading trend at its peak. “Beads have always been popular, but they are huge this season,” she says.
Another local bead maven has been around since 1987, so she’s seen the ups and down of the craft.
“Women always like to be adorned and women have always worn jewelry,” says Nancy Wall, owner of the Beadworks mail-order business and chain of four make-it-yourself stores. “But this year, Christmas has never stopped.”
She says the popularity of beads runs the gamut “from little-girl plastic beads to big-girl semiprecious beads.”
In her mail-order catalog and online store, she’s found “measle beads” — glass beads with bumps — and porcelain beads to be popular, as well as semiprecious and faceted stones. In her stores, one of which is in South Norwalk, teenage girls like to make hemp necklaces with macramé knots and one really nice bead in the middle.
For those who want to stretch their creativity beyond jewelry, there are many ways to incorporate the look into clothing and decor.
“We’re seeing a lot of increased interest in beading and the industry is developing products that make it easier,” says Susan Brant, communications director for the Hobby Industry Association, based in New Jersey. The group tracks trends in arts, crafts and hobbies. “For example, now you can buy appliqués with beads already on (them) so (customers) don’t have to physically attach the beads themselves but can just sew on the patch, and it can be dry-cleaned.”
“There’s also wire now that’s easier to use, so you can wrap a serving spoon with special wire and use beads, or wrap it around votive candles or lampshades.”
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