Friday, October 18, 2013

A Beginner's Guide To Beads For Jewelry Making

If you are new to beading and jewelry making, you will soon discover that there are an enormous variety of beads available for use in your projects. There are literally thousands of different types of beads made from all different types of materials, and they come in all different sizes! Who would think that something as small and simple as a bead could cause such overwhelming confusion? Fear not, and follow this beginner's guide to jewelry making beads.

Beads are made from a huge variety of materials. From stone to bone to precious gems, there is bead for every need! Below is an overview of some of the most popular materials that beads are made from.

Metal beads can be broken down into two categories: precious metals and non-precious metals (sometimes known as base metals). Precious metal beads include those made from 22k, 18k or 14k gold, vermeil (sterling silver plated with a thick coating of gold), gold filled (silver or other base metal electroplated with gold) and sterling silver. Base metal beads include copper, brass, nickel, bronze and pewter. Some older pewter beads contain lead, which should be avoided. When purchasing pewter beads, be sure to look for beads that are labeled as lead-free.

Natural stone beads are considered either precious or semi-precious depending on the type of stone they are made from and whether or not the stone is considered rare or valuable. Precious stones are sometimes referred to as gem stones and although there are a variety of different types of precious gems, only few types are actually made into beads. This is sometimes due to the softness of the stone, such as that of an opal, or because of the rarity of a stone, such as a diamond.
Rubies, sapphires, emeralds and tanzanite are a few types of precious stones that are available in bead form. Other precious gems that are not made into beads are instead cut (faceted) and polished and placed into settings or made into cabochons. Some of the varieties of semiprecious gemstone beads are: amethyst, citrine, moonstone, tiger eye, quartz crystal, rose quartz, turquoise, lapis, apatite, iolite, aquamarine, topaz, peridot, malachite, jade, garnet, carnelian, tourmaline, fluorite, jasper, and agate, among many others.

Many gemstone beads undergo a variety of chemical or heat processes that are meant to harden or enhance the colors of the gems. Some of these processes include bleaching, dyeing, hardening, filling, enhancing, oiling and stabilizing.
In 1982 the American Gem Trade Association established a code of ethics for the jewelry industry pertaining to enhanced gem materials. This code of ethics demands that any retailer must fully disclose any and all enhancements made to a stone or gem. If you plan to sell any jewelry that you make, you must also disclose to your customer if any of the stones in your jewelry have been enhanced.

Pearls are always a popular beading medium. Pearls are natural or cultured, and farmed in either saltwater or freshwater. Some common shapes of pearl beads include round, potato, baroque, rice, seed, stick, and coin. Pearls are graded to discern their quality. For example, a pearl that is graded AAA will have an excellent luster, be free of blemishes, be very smooth and have a thick nacre. A pearl that is graded C, on the other hand, may have some blemishes and not be as smooth or lustrous as a higher graded pearl. Pearls are often bleached and are available in a large variety of dyed colors.

Beads are available from many different types of natural materials including wood, bamboo, horn, bone, seashell, coral, seeds, and amber (petrified tree resin). Some of the varieties of coral, shell and bone (usually cow, goat and water buffalo bone) are often bleached and dyed. Amber is always hardened.

Glass beads have been used in jewelry since ancient times. Nowadays, there are a vast variety to choose from. Some popular types include pressed glass beads (also known as molded glass), lampworked or flameworked glass beads, dichroic (pronounced die-crow-ick) glass beads, millefiori glass beads, seed beads and frosted glass beads. Some glass beads are marketed as "glass pearls." These beads are not true pearls but are glass beads coated with paint or an acrylic coating that makes them resemble pearls.

Known for their fabulous sparkle, crystal beads are machine cut glass beads that have an extremely smooth surface. They come in a wide variety of colors and shapes. Some of the most popular shapes are faceted cubes, tapered (diamond shaped), rounds, saucers, and teardrops.

Acrylic beads are made from different types of plastic and are usually the most inexpensive type of beads. They are available in almost any color and shape imaginable and are sometimes made to look like pearls, gemstone and stone beads.

Some more unusual beads are made from paper, clay, glazed ceramic, polymer clay, PMC (preciousmetal clay), as well as found objects and repurposed/recycled items (such as dice and coins).

Bead sizes range from tiny seed beads to large, centerpiece beads known as focal beads. Most beads sold today are measured in millimeters. One exception is the seed bead, which is measured in aughts. Some common sizes of seed beads are 11/0 (2-2.5 mm diameter) and 8/0 (3-4 mm diameter). One important thing to consider when buying beads is the size of the hole. Some beads (namely pearls and gemstone beads) have holes that are quite small and will not easily accommodate a stringing medium that has too wide a diameter. One handy tool used to remedy this problem is called a pearl reamer. With it, you can enlarge the bead's hole.

The shapes of beads that you can buy are nearly as varied as the materials they are made from. Some standard shapes include round, briolette, teardrop briolette, tube, faceted rounds, twisted, rondelle, disc, barrel, flower, leaf, heart, square, diamond, drum, oval, long oval, flat oval, cone, cube, donut, heishi, coin, fan, slab, carved, nugget, pebbles and chips.

In most cases, the packaging or manufacturer will determine how beads are sold. Some of the more expensive precious metal and gemstone beads are sold individually. Other beads will come packaged by quantity such as 4, 10 or 50 to a package. Many wholesalers offer beads by the gross, which is a quantity of 144 beads. Certain types of beads such as seed beads are sold by weight. For example, a 4-gram tube of size 11/0 seed beads will contain approximately 800 beads. Many pearl and gemstone beads are sold by the strand, and are purchased temporarily strung. When buying pre-strung beads, be sure to note the length of the strand. One common length of pre-strung beads is 16 inches. Others are sold in strands of only four inches. The number of beads that you will receive from a strand depends greatly on the size of the bead and also whether there are spacer beads strung between the beads. Spacer beads are inexpensive plastic or glass beads whose purpose is to display the purchased beads and to separate them so they do not rub against one other.

What's your favorite type of bead?

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I hope you have a great week 
Love, Laura

My broken china jewelry is always available for purchase at


  1. I've been thinking about this for awhile now and wondering if I should take a jewelry making class or two, but I get overwhelmed with it all and decide not to! This was really helpful though and made me want to do it again, such pretty beads!

  2. This a great guide! Thanks for taking the time to spell it out for us newbies! I do want to try my hand at jewelry making sometime in the future!

  3. It's amazing how many different types of beads there are. Thanks for sharing!

  4. A while ago you commented that you were going to be doing a soldering tutorial. Did I miss that? It seems like I've been looking everyday, but haven't seen that and I wanted to make sure I didn't miss it. Thanks.

    1. I might have been talking about my book, Boho Chic Jewelry, which will be out March 14th

  5. Nice Article - wish I had had it when I first started hee hee!!!! Beads can ( are) become a total obsession ( has with me!!! I Love the Bicones, and cubes, although I love the others too ( don't TELL my little beads I like some more than others........sheeshhhhhhhhhh :) And..... and ...... ALL the COLORS too! WHO Knew there are 43(guessing) "shades" of blue, and 29 hues in purple ( those numbers are only joking) but think about it!!!! I have been beading for almost 3 years, doing craft shows for almost as long, and I NEVER get tired of my beads!!! Buying beads sometimes is like buying yarn - get them at the SAME time or you may never match them again!!! If you are new to beading....... Give it a shot! It's wonderful!

    1. You Phyllis are another me. I only started beading about three months ago and am addicted to it already. Absolutely adore the beads that are out there. Boho and Etsy being my favorite. Art Beads and Fusion beads are pretty darn good too. I want to do it all. Got myself a Dremel with all of it's bits, along with the usual tools needed. Want to do wirework but have yet to sort the grade of wire I need. Have got a lot of info about that, maybe too much because everyone has different opinions.

    2. Hi Laura, it is so nice to meet you and love the way you have described yourself. You sound a lot like me too only way ahead of the direction I am heading. The three books above are just what I need to get too. Would you by any chance have the price in New Zealand Dollars for each one and shipping costs please?
      Have a great day.