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Oh, That Blue Bead!
East Asian Shared Beadmaking

Recently a visitor asked about some blue silver-lined beads.
My first response was they could have been made in many places.
However, when she sent to me a graphic, my response was "Oh, that blue bead!"

The beads are fairly large (1.5 inches or 3.75 cm long) and also come in a lighter opaque blue and a few other colors. They first came to my attention when the late G.B. Fenstermaker was selling them.

He had obtained them ultimately from a Chinese store1 located on the ground floor of Cathay House, a San Francisco landmark built right after the 1906 earthquake. They were originally used for beaded curtains.

So, the beads are Chinese, right? It would seem so. Bolstering this is a box covered with similar beads in a brown color in the National Museum of Taiwan. It dates to the Qing (1644-1911) period, probably toward the end.

But, this is not the end of the story.

Consider this package. It is unopened, save for some tears along one side. This allows us to see that the beads are the same as those above. The late Elizabeth Harris donated it to the Center. She was trying to prove to me that the beads were made in Japan (that is what the packaging says), not China.

Another piece of evidence is found in a popular book by Klamkin (1976: # 450, 451). Three Christmas tree decorations are pictured with these beads; two have tags saying "Made in Occupied Japan."

What's going on? After the opening of Japan to the world, forced on it by the United States in 1868, Japan began an export drive that included glass beads.

Japanese beadmakers learned new techniques by visiting European beadmakers and began using them in their own industry. One such technique was silver-lining tubes.

These beads are one result of that technique. They were made by molding a thin tube and then sucking silver ammonia nitrate into it. They are copies of beads made before World War II in Bohemia. In time, the Japanese taught Indians the same technique, which is now used in Firozabad for cheap "gold" and other silver-lined beads.

The Japanese also began spreading their technology to neighboring countries. They built a large, modern Glass factory in the beadmaking center of Boshan, China around 1910. They operated at least five glass factories in China by the early 1920s, long before Japan invaded China.

The Japanese also introduced glass beadmaking to Korea. After invading in 1910, they took five young Korean boys to Japan in 1927 and taught them traditional beadmaking. During occupation and even long afterwards, many beads were sold to Japan, repackaged there and marked "Made in Japan."

My conclusion is that the blue beads shown above could have been made in either Japan or in China, with technical input from Japan. The ones in the "Made in Japan" package could just as easily have been made in China.

Is this cheating? Well, I suppose, but it is hardly unique in the export business.


1 It is impossible from the published reference to this store (Fenstermaker and Williams 1979: 51) to ascertain exactly what the name of the store was.


Fenstermaker, G. B. and Alice T. Williams 1979 The Chinese Bead and the romance of the bead-jewelry trail Fenstermaker Books, Lancaster PA.

Klamkin, Marian 1976 Made in Occupied Japan:
A Collector's Guide
Crown, New York


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