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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Doing My Part to Keep the Industry Alive

 Sometime last week I woke realizing I was about to stay in the Czech Republic where many, if not most, of the beads I buy are produced. I barely had my first cup of coffee before I got online and googled bead tours in Prague. One popped up that caught my eye--a young married couple, one Czech, one English--who lead one day up to one week tours.
 I emailed over my second cup asking if he had last minute room for us the following week, and quickly got an affirmative reply. I literally jumped up and down. I was so excited all week telling friends about the private tour to Jablonec, I started worrying it would be disappointing because my expectations were so high. Not the case!
 The day finally arrived and Keith from Bananas4Beads met us at our apartment right on time. He has a spacious van and off we went. Our first stop was in a small town of Železnÿ on the way to Jablonec where a woman who once worked for a larger bead-making company opened up a small lamp work factory and sells finished jewelry and beads to stores and individual beads to customers who visit.
 We were invited into the back to watch three women making the beads with torches and long glass rods. Keith explained the process and translated any questions we had, then we were able to make our own bead with the help of one of the bead makers. I'd never made a bead before--it's a little nerve-wracking for the first time, but I think I smiled through the whole process. I'd do it again tomorrow if given the chance. Matthew was a natural and she complimented him on how well he did.

I have no pictures of myself on my iPhone, so I took a picture from Matthew's camera. Not a bad idea when all else fails.

Firing and creating...

my finished bead!
 Then, it was time to shop. Oh my. So many boxes filled with individual and groups of beads. I didn't even think to take a photo of them...I was too busy filling about 4 trays to take home. Above the beads were necklaces for sale. It helped seeing how some of the beads were used in finished work. I bought many unique beads, some in pairs with earrings in mind, some just because.
If you can enlarge this, you might see the bead boxes filled with all kinds of beauties. Admittedly, I didn't even ask prices because I knew they were less than I'd pay in the US. The women who make the beads earn about $400 a month salary. They have some collaboration in the creative process of how the beads will look, and once a new design is agreed upon, they have to produce many of the same bead. Their salary is hourly, but they do get more based on productivity.
Some samples of lamp work beads I bought. A range of prices from $2 up and some under $1 for small beads. 

Matthew and Keith waiting patiently though Matthew did buy some animal beads.

 Our next stop was a goat farm and bead factory. This was much larger with a restaurant/cafe outside, many chickens in a large cooped area, goats we didn't have a chance to see, but Keith thinks they might have 1000, and then the beads. Oh, the beads.
Goat cheese for sale, of course...
We started with a tour of the factory. Keith was able to explain the process in great detail, which was very interesting. The sand from the area is why people started making glass beads hundreds of years ago. I took pictures of the machinery they use today, but it's still rustic looking and run by individuals, not assembly lines.

I won't explain the whole process, but the glass colors are determined by what is added to it, much like a mordant in dyeing fabric and yarn.  Keith told us a story about a glass maker who had a fight with his wife and threw his gold wedding ring into the fire with the clear glass and it changed color. She came back to him because he became either famous or rich or both after the discovery. This picture shows what the glass beads look like after being molded--the hole is already drilled into it as well. Then it gets lightly tumbled and those bits around the bead fall off. They're still not smooth, so they are then put into another tumbler that smooths the edges. 

This is hard to see, but it's for quality make sure each bead has a hole drilled correctly and is round. The worker dipped this into the beads getting each one onto a small post, then she makes sure they're all uniform before putting it into the machine that I think polishes it. If they're to be faceted, they'll go to the next area into another machine.
This is what they were working on when we were there. They're at the bottom of my purse now.
Now it's time to shop!
All the beads here are 'leftover' from wholesale orders. When a company orders beads, extras are always made in case they need more or there's a problem with some of them. This way, they always are prepared, then they also have beads to sell to others. 

One aisle of several...then there was another room! I only bought 8 kilos. uh, well, that's about 17+ lb. Keith asked before I started if I needed a basket or a cart. well....

They were bagged in sizes, so I tried finding the smallest size in what I wanted. In one case, I really wanted the beads, but the bags were huge, so they created a smaller bag for me. I was given a 40% discount because of being brought by Bananas4Beads, and if I paid cash, no  21% tax. Keith suggested I empty my purse, which I did, and he would drive me to an ATM so I could pay him...because much of the cash I had was going to him.

Some of what I bought....

 So I'd already bought quite a bit and we hadn't even gotten to the town of Jablonec yet! Are you kidding? It's already about 3, so I was given a choice of going to the bead museum or to one more factory.
 We left Matthew off at the museum with plans on returning to join him if I was fast enough. Ha! The next stop had one time been a fabric factory. The Czechs had a huge fabric business at one time, but it has all died away. The same could happen to the bead industry because young people aren't getting into the trade, it pays very poorly, and China has overtaken the market with cheaply made beads.
 The factory and store were in different buildings and walking into this one is more like a showroom or regular bead shop. The proprietor is a lovely woman who also teaches jewelry classes to the women on Keith's longer tours. Each factory makes their own unique style of beads, so I found some here that were different from what I'd already seen. They were in strands and I was given a basket with a price list. The strands were tagged with a letter that matched the price on the list. They also had many packages of beads, which I skipped.

 The first thing that caught my eye, however, was a huge bowl (actually several with different types of beads in each), a scooper, cups, and a price by kilo. I had to do it. I love the dotted beads and have made necklaces and bracelets with them in the past.  I got a huge bag of beads for about $4. Keith warned me some might not have holes or be broken, but overall, they would be in good condition. They just didn't sort them out.

 Threw everything on the bed (in two shifts) when we returned...after a long car trip due to an accident that delayed us about an hour. Keith is an excellent driver, very patient, and also a good conversationalist. He and Matthew covered many subjects while I rested in the back seat after my long, exhausting day.
In the center, what I bought at the last stop (Matthew really enjoyed the museum, by the way, and I was sorry to have missed it, but hope to return one day).  The lampwork is on the outer edges. Last picture is the fire polished beads in many colors and shapes.

We had two very busy, awesome days in Prague that got me thinking. I might consider leading a tour group here next year. We would fly into Prague and spend 2-3 days here, then have Keith bring us to Jablonec (with a couple of stops on the way) for 3 days. A beading class (and maybe Kumihimo?) could be in the plan, shopping, and seeing nearby sites, including art glass factories. I know you're thinking how crazy, does she really need more beads in a year (no, I have enough to last me many years), but I want to promote the Czech glass bead industry. I would hate to see this centuries-old tradition die out. People have to be willing to support and nurture these types of industries or we'll all be only wearing and using things made in China.
Who's with me?


  1. Rather surprising that they have been able to hold on to this industry given the production China has! Sounds interesting!

  2. Ok so now you have to come by and visit the shop. We have the tools to do bead work but I have never had the creative ability to make it jewelry. Make a bead, not hard, make nice looking jewelry, way more difficult!

    1. Wow...I would love to give it a try, Doug! We could collaborate on it.