Beaders Form Jewelry, and a Circle of Friends

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. Beadwork has a long history as an art form practiced by American Indians and other cultures around the world. Today millions of people enjoy making -- and in some cases selling -- their own beaded jewelry. This week on our program, we meet some of these beaders.


We begin in New Mexico in the American Southwest at a show called Interweave Bead Fest Santa Fe. Interweave Press is a major publisher in the craft media industry. The company also produces events around the country including Bead Fests.

For example, this August in Pennsylvania is Bead Fest Philadelphia. Then, in September, beaders will gather in Oregon for Bead Fest Portland.

This year's show in Santa Fe took place over four days in March at the city's convention center and nearby hotels. Karen Keegan, the event manager, estimated the attendance at about three thousand people.

More than four hundred fifty of them took jewelry making classes. The others just came to buy from the one hundred twenty-seven vendors at the show. Vendors sell their own jewelry as well as jewelry making supplies.

Visitors to the showrooms could find everything they needed to produce one-of-a kind rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings. There were low-priced beads and high-priced beads. Beads made of glass, of wood, of clay and of crystal. Round beads, square beads and beads in a riot of other shapes, sizes and colors.


Why make jewelry? For one thing, it can save a lot of money. Retired Special English writer Paul Thompson once saw a crystal bracelet in a store. The price was two hundred fifty dollars.

Paul examined the bracelet and decided that he could make the same thing -- for much less. It took him several weeks to learn how to string the crystals, and how to separate them so they would look nice. He also had to learn how to attach a clasp for opening and closing the bracelet.

In the end, he was able to produce a very similar crystal bracelet for less than twenty dollars. Later, as his skills improved, he made earrings and a necklace in the same color and design. That was about four years ago.

Today, he makes jewelry as gifts for friends and family members. They always ask if he plans to sell any. He says no, then making jewelry would become a job. But others have turned their jewelry making hobby into a money making career.

Jeannette Cook has been beading since the nineteen sixties. The Southern California artist started by making "love bead" necklaces. Today, she says she earns about sixty thousand dollars a year through her company called Beady Eyed Women.

Jeannette Cook says she attends four or five jewelry shows a year where she teaches workshops and sells her products. And she has produced six books about beading in a series called "The Beady Eyed Women's Guide."

She says beading not only looks good, it feels good. In times of stress she will go bead for an hour, she says, and that calms her down.

Another successful jewelry designer is Karen Lewis, also known as KLEW, spelled K-L-E-W. She started out more than twenty years ago working with polymer clay. She liked the way she could easily form this plastic modeling material into different shapes. And she liked how she could twist together pieces in different colors.

Today, Karen Lewis says she works seven days a week, but loves what she does. She says she earns more than one hundred thousand dollars a year as a bead designer. She owns two stores in California. She also sells her beads to other stores and online. And she sells at bead shows like the one in Santa Fe.

Jill Wiseman of Austin, Texas, left her job at a high-tech company four years ago to do beading full time. She works with extremely small beads known as seed beads.

JILL WISEMAN: "Tiny, tiny, tiny. I always say the smaller the better."

She also teaches classes on making bracelets and other jewelry. She says one reason she enjoys the jewelry making business is the people she meets. She says people who do seed beading share a great sense of community. They develop friendships just like people who get together to make quilts or do other crafts.

And she loves bringing people together. For example, she says a group of students who met in her classes now get together two times a week to talk and to bead.

Ila Lewis makes and sells beaded jewelry but not as a full time job. She is a retired California state employee who lives in Sacramento, the state capital.

She enjoys choosing beads in a variety of colors and shapes, then putting them together. The most difficult part, she says, is creating a good design. That takes the most time.

She decides which colors to work with, then places each bead on a board covered with cloth. She changes colors, shapes, sizes and placement of beads on the board until the design pleases her.

Ila Lewis and other jewelry makers say combining the materials into a finished piece generally takes less time than the design process. But the design process is what she really loves.


Interweave Press did a State of Beading Survey in two thousand four. The survey found that the United States had at least five hundred fifty thousand active beaders. They spent an average of about eight hundred dollars a year on supplies. More than half of them sold their work or gave it away to family and friends.

The survey in two thousand four also found that the United States had about two thousand independent bead supply stores. That was an increase of more than forty percent from nineteen ninety-seven. And that did not include large craft store chains.

All the jewelry makers we spoke to in March at Bead Fest Santa Fe agreed that the recession had affected their businesses. They reported fewer orders and fewer offers to teach classes over the past year.

Karen Lewis -- KLEW -- said her business was down about twenty percent. That was mostly when fuel prices were so high last year that people in California were not driving to her stores.


There are plenty of free videos on the Internet for people who want to learn how to do beading and make jewelry. Just go to a site like YouTube and type in "beading techniques" or even just "beading." We leave you now with some examples, which we have strung together like beads of sound.

NARRATOR, "Welcome to Beadbee's basic beading video series. This video will demonstrate how to use wire wrapping technique to create a beaded link. The supplies you will need are sterling silver wire, round-nosed pliers, flat-nosed pliers, flat-nosed pliers with a tip, and flush cutters."

SONIA DAMERON, "Welcome to the Bead Bar, Orlando Florida. My name is Sonia and on this segment for Expert Village we are going to show you how to do a multiple strand necklace. A lot of people are intimidated by multiple strand necklaces, but it's actually very easy to do."

LEONARDO MARTINEZ, "Hello, my name is Leonardo Martinez from Legendary Beads here in Austin, Texas. Today we're going to talk about how to be a beaded jewelry designer. For me, I walked into a bead store and the girl showed me how to put bead and chain together, worked a few wire techniques. I never knew I was going to be a beaded jewelry designer until the day I was actually doing it."

SONIA DAMERON: "Now when it comes to wire there's lots of different sizes. And the sizes in the wire are by gauge. And how that works is, as your number increases, the diameter gets smaller and smaller."

LEONARDO MARTINEZ: "I think the most important thing being a beaded jewelry designer is having patience."

TERESA METCALFE-JOHNSON, "All right, what we're going to do now is take this basic round bead and we're going to apply some frit. Remember, frit is crushed up pieces of glass. The glass that I have is a neon green and a bright orange. What you want to do is heat your base bead until it's that honey-like consistency. You want to keep spinning your mandrel so that it doesn't melt off the rod and you're going to heat your bead so that it's tacky enough to roll onto the frit and pick up pieces of the glass."

LEONARDO MARTINEZ: "It's a lot of trial and error. It's a process. And that's something that you have to be willing to put up with."


Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach, who we should say is married to our former colleague Paul Thompson. Our producer was Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are at You can also follow us on Twitter at We hope you join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.