Ornament Magazine Issue 36.1 November 2013

           Islamic Glass Beads

The Well-Travelled Ornament

               by Robert K. Liu

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SELECTION from a Syrian collection, showing a wide variety of techniques of Islamic glass beads; millefiore/mosaic, folded, combed, with filigree and charmcase bead with loops. The large black disc bead with trailed decoration could be a late Hebron-made bead, 3.68 centimetres diameter.

"Valuable skills like glassmaking or bead-making would have been closely-held secrets, limited to families, with entry into this very conservative craft via apprenticeships."

Islamic glass beads travelled faster and further than any other beads of their time. From their source in the Middle and Near East they migrated far beyond the boundaries of  Islam's swiftly expanding influence in North Africa and Spain to Iceland in the west and China (Xinjiang) in the east. Islamic glassworkers of the Medieval period mastered new styles and techniques that insured their wares, including beads, were valued by merchants plying the great trade routes across and around Africa, into Europe, and across the deserts and mountains into Central Asia, India and beyond. Small, monochromatic, drawn Indo-Pacific glass beads, still being made in India today, have been around longer and were made in more places, but even they were not as widely distributed as Islamic glass beads (Francis, Jr. 1990, 2002).

The term Islamic Period Glass Beads is used, similarly to Roman Period Beads, to classify groups of ornaments from specific geographic areas and time periods, with recognisable characteristics including patterns and techniques. In the case of Islamic glass beads we know they originated in the Middle East and flourished mostly between the seventh and twelfth centuries. Their designs display a wide mix of techniques and styles: millefiori/mosaic (including pierced mosaic pad beads), trailed, filigreed, combed, fused rods,  segmented/blown, folded (an Islamic innovation, Holland and Holland 2006) and those derived from amulet shapes, like charmcase beads with loops.

Permission to reproduce this was kindly granted by the Copyright holder Robert K. Liu

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