Glass teeth to make your mouth water

January 10, 2003

This is a sumptuous book charting the history and craftsmanship of international beadwork. Reminiscent of the excellent Dorling Kindersley visual guides, Beadwork does not set out to be a comprehensive academic study. Nevertheless it provides an informative account of the history and manufacture of the tiny glass seed bead.

As befits the subject matter, Beadwork is heavily weighted towards a pictorial review and more than 600 illustrations are beautifully reproduced. Maps covering the main regional sections (Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia, Oceania and the Arabian Gulf) are an excellent addition, and provide a welcome reference tool, particularly when placing ethnic groups into geographical context. My only criticism is an inconsistency in providing dates, but this is a minor irritation considering the quality and diversity of the illustrations.

Despite the fact that Beadwork sets itself the task of covering more than 40 topics, the text is accessible and easily digestible; the section covering bead manufacturing centres makes fascinating reading. Each process for making glass beads is described briefly but succinctly and the plate illustrating the press-moulded "sweetie" beads, so popular in West Africa, literally makes your mouth water. As expected, Venice dominates the section on European manufacturing centres. However, I was unaware of the emergence of Bohemia as the leader in bead-making in the 20th century, or that the Czech Republic was so instrumental in introducing moulded glass beads to Africa. Indeed, the Czechs were so successful in researching their market that they managed to replace shells, teeth and other natural materials with glass beads imitating their shape.

The strength of the authors' research undoubtedly lies in the four main regional sections outlining the history and trade routes of beads in each area. The sections then go on to examine individual techniques in detail. Designers, beadworkers and collectors will be particularly interested in the construction and techniques section, and the explanations of the subtleties of different historical methods and technical innovations. The text and the plates describe individual construction methods clearly. The book concludes with a short section on collecting and conserving beadwork, together with a list of where to find objects in public collections, and an extensive bibliography.

This book is the first survey to reveal the wealth and diversity of traditional beadwork from around the world and the result is an extraordinary catalogue of uses to which beadwork has been put - and not simply as an embellishment to dress. My favourite objects have to be the fertility figures, particularly the Shona fertility figure from Zimbabwe, whose significance increased the greater number and variety of objects she acquired. Beadwork is part gazetteer, part ethnographic survey and is a visually stunning book that also manages to be informative without being too academic. Each plate is a fascinating feast for the eye. This book is a valuable addition to any specialist or reference library and will delight anyone who remembers the thrill of being given permission to play with their grandmother's jewellery box on a wet Sunday afternoon.

Sue Prichard is curator of contemporary textiles, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Beadwork: A World Guide

Author - Caroline Crabtree and Pam Stallebrass
ISBN - 0 500 510806
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £28.00
Pages - 208

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