To bead or not to bead is no longer the question. The Washington area's numerous classes, specialty stores and active bead groups are prompting different questions altogether: the creative how and what, the practical where and when, even the anthropological why. As for who, the bead appeals to all ages and cultures -- and has for more than 40,000 years. Beautiful, durable, affordable, portable, the bead is one of our oldest manmade objects. Ancient humans poked holes through shells, strung animal teeth and fashioned disks from ostrich eggshells.
"When man's basic needs for food and shelter were met, it seems he turned to adorning himself," says Hilary Whittaker, a former president of the Bead Society of Greater Washington, sponsor of the Bead Museum in the District's Penn Quarter. That impulse continues strongly today -- folks still love to bedeck themselves -- but current beadniks are drawn to other facets as well. The society, which hosts monthly gatherings, classes and shows, has swelled from an initial 12 in 1983 to more than 400 "researchers, designers, makers, collectors and, of course, bead lovers," Whittaker says.
At Beadazzled in Dupont Circle, assistant manager Kathleen Manning, center, teaches students, including Jane Fines, left, of Greenbelt and Leilani Wagner, right, of Alexandria, how to make earrings and other pieces of jewelry. Several bead stores across the region offer classes.
(Lauren Victoria Burke - For The Washington Post)
THE WORLD ON A STRING
"Through beads, I can travel," says Diana Ngbokoto (pronounced "bo-ko-to"), a part-time designer and jewelry instructor in Washington. For this native Romanian, the tiny bead offers a window into other cultures. "I try to find out about the beads I use -- who made them, where and why," says Ngbokoto, who fashions Indian bells, African trade beads, coconut shells, Indonesian eye beads, Czech glass, Thai wood, even old spindle whorls into necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Each finished piece holds a "story that is deeper" than its surface appearance, she says.
Bead travel has brought Virginia Overbey and sister Dian, both of Washington, to Ngbokoto's recent workshop at the Bead Museum. Among the museum's displays -- prehistoric pierced fossils, 18th-century Venetian chevrons, contemporary glass marvels -- Virginia hopes to pick up a few tips on using the "portable souvenirs" she's collected on trips abroad.
"Let the bead guide the design," suggests Ngbokoto to the small group gathered at the table. She sets a yellow quartz disk beside a silver ball. "What bead looks good next to another?" Participants gaze at tiny bead-filled bags and voice their ideas. A lapis bead is tried, then a small gold band. Ngbokoto adds them to ear wires and makes loops with small pliers. Presto: Custom-made earrings dangle alluringly.
"Taking a class can help you avoid some common mistakes or advance a little more quickly," says Ngbokoto, mentioning those at bead stores and community centers as especially helpful and affordable. "But the best way to learn is to experiment." Designing a piece can be complicated -- or as simple as placing beads on a string. And artistically, it's very forgiving. "If I make a mistake or want a change or don't like what I've done, no problem," she says. "I just take it apart and start over."
Bitten by the bead bug but not sure where to buy? You need travel no farther than about two dozen local stores to discover beads, gemstones, cord for stringing, tools and "findings" (clasps, ear wires, headpins, posts and so on).
At Beadazzled in Dupont Circle on a busy weeknight, the reasons for browsing seem as varied as the wares on view. Cowrie shells, wooden balls, cut beads, glass fish, painted pigs and silvery charms entice the eye and invite the touch. Sonia Canizales, a teacher's aide in the District, wants to look at the purple beads beloved by her late mother. Maria Antonia Hernandez of Adelphi searches for the perfect clasp for an amethyst-and-pearl necklace she is making.
"There are so many factors in what makes a bead attractive -- color, weight, shape, texture" and so many tools, says Beadazzled associate Ceasar Lecea, admitting to his own fascination with Indian bead looms as he helps Hernandez. "Sometimes it can get confusing, overwhelming. You have to stop and walk away for a while."
"It's absolutely addictive" is therapist Barbara Mazer's take on the whole bead scene. Her own interest has grown from a chance invitation to an informal "beading circle" in graduate school to having her pieces shown and sold at Beadazzled. "We'd meet as a small circle of friends, sharing ideas and beads, taking a break from intellectual endeavors," she explains. To refine her skills, she signed up for classes at Beadazzled and now hosts her own beading circles.
"Earrings or simple necklaces are often good starting points," says Beadazzled owner Penny Diamanti. Since opening her first store in 1986, followed by a second in Baltimore in 1992 and a third at Tysons Corner in 1994, she has seen many folks blossom into beaders. "People often can learn basic skills very quickly -- and are empowered to feel creative" even if they've never explored their artistic side before, she says.
Stringing beads can bring families together, too, Diamanti says. Even little children are intrigued by -- and capable of -- threading large-holed beads and creating patterns.
Washington bead artist Elizabeth Glass Geltman agrees. Projects with her 5-year-old daughter, Rachel, have evolved from stringing to crafting Sculpey beads to creating electroformed jewelry with the saved husks of last year's cicadas. In addition to being a shared activity, beads can connect generations in less obvious ways, Geltman says. She and Rachel recently rummaged through a box of broken jewelry sent by Geltman's grandmother, salvaged and buffed the malachite beads, fashioned a cat medallion and presented the "recycled necklace" to the delighted 90-year-old woman.
At the Bead Museum, Director Tania Said is putting beads into the hands of the next generation. Since opening to the public in 1997, the museum has become a veritable bead hive, with youth workshops, a Junior Bead Club and special programs for Girl Scout and Brownie troops recently joining the regular lineup of demonstrations and exhibits. "Kids are fascinated by the [museum's] 'Bead Timeline of History,' " says Said of the 38-foot-long permanent exhibit of beads from prehistory to the present. "In looking at these beads, kids also learn about history, geography, different cultures, changing technology."