Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to buy lampwork beads, Part 2

by Patty Lakinsmith

In the first part of this series I introduced you to some of the tools and equipment that glass bead artists use. In this second installment of "How to Buy Lampwork Beads" I'm going to delve into the factors that determine the price you pay for lampwork, and will cover some quality indicators you can look for when you shop.

Like with any fine art or craft, it can also take a lampworker some time to make a detailed bead. Cleo Dunsmore makes the most incredible, true to species lampwork glass fish beads and they can take her several hours each to make. The price is reflective of that, but you know you are buying a true work of art.

With some experience you can come to learn how complex a bead is and how difficult it was to make. In general, simple beads with few colors (unless they're made from the new silvered glass that costs $100/lb, or with colors that the artist has blended herself) will cost less than those with more, and simple shapes will be less expensive than more sculptural, hand formed shapes. Beads that have been cold worked (e.g. ground down or faceted on a lapidary wheel) take a very long time to finish, as do those that are electroformed (plated with metal, usually copper).

Some of the more difficult beads to make are lifelike encased floral designs, and sculptural animals, flowers, and whimsical creatures, or beads incorporating complex pre-made components such as murrini or hand painted artwork such as Bronwen Heilman creates for her beads.

If you love lampwork eye candy and would like a good reference, I highly recommend a couple of books from the Lark Publishing Company. 1000 Glass Beads: Innovation and Imagination in Contemporary Glass Beadmaking, and Masters: Glass Beads: Major Works by Leading Artists.

Both of these books contain a wide representation of contemporary lampwork art, and tell a little about the process used by the artists to achieve their effects. The range of techniques and end results in this relatively newly discovered art form are amazing, and the possibilities are endless.
So, if you're going to shell out your hard earned cash for these kinds of beads, you probably want to know what else you should look for. These are basic requirements that any bead should meet, regardless of the artistry involved.

Here's a quick list of things that indicate quality in lampwork glass beads:

1. Neatly puckered ends. The ends of the beads where beading thread or wire go through should not be sharp, and ideally should have nice little puckers. They should be nice to look at, like a baby's behind. Sharp bead holes can cut stringing material over time, and can lead to chipped edges as well.

2. No signs of bead release in the holes. Bead release is a powdery substance that prevents the hot glass from sticking to the mandrel when the bead is being made. This is a very easy way to spot mass-produced, imported lampwork beads - they have not been cleaned. All reputable lampwork bead makers clean their bead holes thoroughly, and this takes time.

3. No chill marks. Concentric circles indicate that the hot glass was rapidly cooled by some sort of tool, and experienced bead makers remove these marks by fire polishing the bead in the flame after tooling.

4. Kiln annealed. Beads must be annealed so that they won't crack and break later, and this must be done in a kiln. If a seller or bead maker cannot tell you if the beads have been annealed, they probably haven't. Beginning bead makers use vermiculite in a crock pot or a fiber blanket to more slowly cool their beads, but these are not accepted annealing methods for beads to be sold. There is no way to tell with the naked eye whether beads have been annealed or not.

5. No visible cracks. Obviously, glass beads should not be cracked. Cracks can come from improper or no annealing, or from combining two different types of glass that have different Coefficients of Expansion (COE). There's your technical term for the day. Impress your friends with it.

6. Properly secured dots. Undercuts on raised dots (sometimes hard to see on very small dots) leave the raised area vulnerable to cracking off later. Dots should meet the bead with a perpendicular angle, and should be there to stay.

It kills me to go to the large gem and jewelry shows and see the throngs of shoppers around the imported lampwork beads. Sure, some of them look nice, and they certainly are cheap, but for me when all is said and done it becomes an issue of principle. The persons who made those beads have no connection to the work. The company they made them for probably couldn't even tell you who made them, and probably doesn't give much of a hoot about their working conditions either, given how cheaply they're sold. If you're all about buying "Made in the USA" , this is a good place to start.

In response to the influx of mass produced imported beads on eBay some years ago, the Self Representing Artist organization was formed. You can look up individual bead makers in this group here. The International Society of Glass Beadmakers (ISGB) is a non-profit group dedicated to promotion and education of the art of glass beadmaking, and offer information on their website about finding qualified instructors and classes in your area. They also publish a pamphlet, I believe, on how to buy lampwork beads, but I can't seem to find mine.

There you have it. I'm sure I forgot a few things, and I welcome my fellow bead makers to add anything I've left out. Now get out there and get shopping!


MaCarroll Beads said...

That was really informative. I feel the same way about mass-produced ceramic beads from China. I actually own a few myself because prior to making my own, I didn't think about the differences. I have a question....What is the white that you can see on the inside of the bead? Is that like a base glass that gets layers added to it? I've noticed it more in some of my lampwork beads than I have in others.

Julianna Cannon said...

Patti, I want to kiss you on the mouth. THANK YOU for writing such an informative post about the quality control issues and time involved in all of the steps required to create a OOAK Lampwork Art Bead.

Imports may be cheap, but you get what you pay for and it serves to further undermine America's perception of quality.


Maryann, Yes. If a bead is encased with a transparent color OR an expensive silver glass white is often used as the base color and that is likely what you are seeing.

Alice said...

Thanks for a great post. Our customers also need to be educated so they know the value of the piece they are buying, and why the price might be higher.

I love lampwork bead with their depths of color, and never-ending variety of styles.

MaCarroll Beads said...

Thanks Juls! I don't know much about lampwork beads :O)

Patty said...

Juls, it's a pleasure to "meet" you (with a kiss no less! :-) ). Yes, some encased (wrapped with clear) beads have a white center, sometimes called a white heart. But if MaryAnn is talking about a powdery white substance, *that's* the dreaded bead release.

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