Friday, October 14, 2011

The Fanciful Fire Polish Bead

My love affair with beads began with Seed Beads & Fire Polish beads. In fact, you could say that those 2 beads are the main reason 1 Stop Bead Shop exists today. I couldn’t find enough of them, and I wanted a broader and more consistent selection of colors & sizes. I always valued the Fire Polish bead because it was easy to use as an accent bead with seed beads, didn’t cut my thread the way crystals could, was less scratchy than a Swarovski bicone bead, and was so much less expensive than Swarovski beads. When I traveled to the Czech Republic on a bead trip, I was able to witness how they were made, and was astonished that they are as inexpensive as they are.

Fire Polish beads are one of several types of glass beads that have been produced in the Czech Republic (formerly Bohemia) for centuries. Sources vary on the century in which these beads emerged, but the majority seem to agree that it was between the 12th & 16th centuries that the Venetians and Bohemians were competing fiercely with each other in the glass bead market. Toward the end of that period, competition finally eased when the Venetians stayed with their signature Lamp Work styled hand-made beads, while the Czech preferred to utilize emerging technologies to mass produce their glass beads.

The interesting thing about that technology is that 500 years later it remains relatively unchanged. When we think of mass production technology in the US, we tend to think in terms of long automated machine lines run primarily by computers with some human oversight at certain key points in the process. The bead making machines in the Czech Republic still require a laborer to process every step and are in essence more like giant tools for grinding several beads at a time rather than machines that operate on their own.

There are several steps in making a fire polished bead:
1. First the glass is melted from a huge cane of glass, much like our lamp work canes but several inches thick and about a meter tall. Most of this cane is still made in Germany & shipped to the Czech Republic.
2. Then the molten glass is poured into a mold that will hold several beads – quantity varies based on the size of the bead and the choice of the manufacturer.
3. That mold is fired in a kiln to allow it to fully melt into a round shape w/ the glass consistently distributed throughout the mold.
4. When it comes out of the kiln, it will sit in the tray to cool, then cool further in a bucket of water.
5. Next each bead is picked up and hand-placed on a form that will hold from approx. a dozen to 20 beads. The form looks like a board w/ a bunch of pegs sticking up from it.
6. This form is then pushed up by the machine operator to come into contact w/the grinding wheel. That produces 1 faceted side. The machine is then rotated by the operator and the beads pushed forward again to produce another facet. This continues through the entire sequence until all sides are faceted. The beads are then dumped off into a vat.
7. The faceted beads are once again run through the fire, this time to polish them. By heating them again just enough to melt the edges, it eliminates roughness from the cutting, keeps the edges of the beads from cutting your thread, and gives them that shiny sparkle that makes them “fire polished.”
8. They are cooled 1 more time and now ready for shipment to the US, Japan and other parts of the world where they are prized.

After all those steps, you can see why I am amazed that these tiny treasures remain an affordable alternative to their closest sister – the crystal. (More on what makes crystal crystal and not glass in a future article.)

Today, 1 Stop Bead Shop remains the largest reseller of Czech Glass Fire Polish Beads in central Ohio, currently carrying over 200 colors in 3 primary sizes – 3mm, 4mm & 6mm. As with all beads made in the Czech Republic, I always remind my shoppers that “The Czech make what the Czech wanna’ make, when the Czech wanna’ make it.” In a nutshell, that means, if you find a special color that you love, buy enough, because you never know when or if you will see it again. (More on why that is in some future article too.)

Recently, our primary supplier announced the 3rd price increase in Czech Fire Polish beads since we opened 6 years ago. 1 Stop Bead Shop’s Fire Polish beads have remained at their original price of just $2 a strand for 3mm & 4mm during all 6 years. With our vendor’s most recent price increase, we have finally been forced to give in to the tide of inflation, and raise our price to cover their increase. For 1 last week, through October 22, 2011, 3mm & 4mm Czech Fire Polish beads will be available for the low price of just $2 for a strand of 50. Stock up this week, and enjoy them for years to come!

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