SO YOU'RE AT this nightclub or party, and you notice someone wearing an unusual necklace. Or earrings.

"Nice beads," you say.

"I made it myself," you're told, and you think maybe you might try your hand at stringing something together. Maybe for yourself, maybe for a friend. Soon you find yourself in a bead store, absorbed in picking out the beads from the hundreds of tiny trays. No two alike. The work itself is absorbing, and you've created something.

But a simple pair of earrings leads to a necklace . . . And soon you're haunting bead bazaars and antique shops, tossing around words like "millefiores" and "monofilament," spending hours stringing beads and spending the rent on a fistful of Chinese turquoise baubles. Or ancient bronze, cinnabar, jade, serpentine, bone, glass . . . .

You've been sucked into a parallel universe, the world of the Bead People, who have their own customs and arcana, the history and provenance of beads, the symbolism, semiotics, design, engineering and rituals of beads. Beadaholics, they call themselves. Some get so "strung out" they wind up making their own beads, or traveling to exotic continents to trade with native beadmakers. Or, in extreme cases, they abandon their careers and devote their lives to the fascinating little gewgaws.

That's what happened to Penny Diamanti. Smitten by beads as a kid, Diamanti started designing and stringing beaded jewelry, and brought some back from a trip to the Ivory Coast to sell to college friends in California. Eventually she left her job at National Geographic and devoted herself to stringing original works that were sold to museum gift shops. Her hobby turned into a passion into an obsession into a career: Now Diamanti's the founder and owner of Beadazzled, a year-old, three-room shop at Dupont Circle.

Beadazzled is almost always crowded with shoppers picking bright or brilliant baubles from tiny cups and placing them into their wicker shopping trays. Or trying on strings of ready-made beads. Or admiring the fantastic creations of Diamanti and other area bead artists. On the side, Diamanti is also an importer of Peruvian beads, and coordinates beadwork and beadmaking workshops with First Class.

So beads are back. Big time. But then, they never really went away. Beads have been around since prehistory, you know. Everyone knows that Manhattan was bought with beads, and most of us remember their most recent incarnation as hippie signifiers. Beads are practically forever -- the beads and amulets that adorned an Egyptian princess or Lakota warrior or Masai matriarch may turn up in one of the bead shops popping up in every major city.

The Bead Society of Greater Washington, the largest association of its kind in the country, boasts 650 members and is growing fast, says society officer Carolyn Spence. In October, the society presented the Second International Bead Conference, a three-day event at the Mayflower Hotel that attracted hundreds of beady-eyed trinket lovers. And the group's recent semiannual Bead Bazaar at the Silver Spring Armory attracted several hundred beadsters.

Diamanti (isn't that a great name for someone who works with beads?) theorizes that this recent bead boom came about from a renewed society-wide interest in ancient and ethnic cultures, and from the influential fashion magazines, which started adding exotic tribal jewelry to accent fashion spreads. And if you want to get new age about it, the profusion of crystals and scarabs and talismans connect us atavistically to ancient rituals and tribal roots.

I got hooked on a recent trip to San Francisco, where everyone was wearing them to the dance clubs. I started with "mummy beads," tiny clay paste circular beads, rough-hewn but nearly uniform in size, in turquoise and terracotta. Later I put together a string of old Chinese spun glass, mostly bottle-green, with the occasional amber, red or black bead, strung in the order I pulled them out of the bag. The only other supplies I needed were some black nylon cord (tipped with silver wire that functions as a threading needle), some epoxy and a place to sit and string. And patience.

Stringing beads is meditative work, mindless and mindful at once. In fact Buddhists use malas -- long strings of 108 ivory skull beads -- to focus their prayer and meditation. I found I became so involved in the task at hand that nothing could remain worrisome for very long.

"For me it always has been an antidote to a pretty high-stress job in journalism, and a lot of people who come in here say the same thing -- it's so soothing," Diamanti says. "It uses a different part of the brain, and it releases creativity that a lot of people didn't realize they had in them. Plus you get all this nice feedback when people compliment what you made."

Diamanti provides some pointers for novice beadsters:

Trust your own eye for design and colors -- pick what you're attracted to, and your natural design and color sense will express itself in your work. It's fine to be inspired by beadwork you've seen, but don't try to copy it exactly; give your creativity free rein. You can meticulously design a piece, or just grab a bunch of beads and see where they take you.

Don't be afraid to ask for advice at your bead supplier, about types and weights of cord, how to start and how to finish with knots and clasps.

Your workspace should be uncluttered and well-lighted -- work by daylight if possible. It might be a good idea to place your beads in a bowl. Remember, cats and kids will be intensely interested in what you're doing, and will want to "help."

Sit up straight and give yourself a break every now and then, or put the work aside and come back to it another day. Beading is a relaxing activity, but it can get intense, and wear on the eyes and neck and hands.

Don't be in a hurry. The pleasure's in the work itself -- it's kind of a Zen thing. There's pleasure even before you start stringing along, actually, because shopping for beads and planning the piece are part of the fun. And don't be afraid to take it apart and start over.

When I finish a piece, I'm proud of it, and I have fun wearing it, knowing it came from me. But here's the best part: When a friend says "Nice beads," I can lift them off my neck and place them around his or hers, and say, "They're yours."