The History of Czech Glass Bead Production

North Bohemia (Hence the descriptive term sometimes used, namely Bohemian Glass beads for beads made in Czech and Germany) has been a European glass manufacturing centre since the 13th century largely because it was rich in the natural resources needed for glass making. Supplies of quartz, which was mined, and potash from the regions forests, and a by product of the wood burned to heat the glass, made it the ideal location.

Beads had been made in Bohemia since Roman times, but it was an intermittent industry. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, about 400 A.D., there was little demand for luxury items such as beads in Europe. By the 900’s locally made beads were placed in some tombs and by the 1200’s glass factories were turning out a variety of glass products, but these were mostly household wares with only a few beads present. Early documents record German glass makers from the Rhineland being invited to settle in the area of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire known as Bohemia. This was a relatively unsettled province with large forests and rivers, and sand useful for glass making. The earliest known glass factory is outside of present day Jablonec. It is of course just a ruin, but a museum stands on its site. In the Jizera Mountains outside of Jablonec at Vysoka are the ruins of another glass works, Sklenavice, which date back to the 14th century.

It was not until the 1550’s that a major glass industry was founded in the cities of Jablonec, Stanovsko, and Bedrichov (modern Reichenberg) in Bohemia (in the current Czech Republic). All centres produced glass beads, mainly for use in rosaries, but from the second half of the 16th century, when costume jewellery become fashionable, they started producing beads to be used more decoratively. These glassmakers were mostly decentralized cottage crafters making beads for use in larger, centralised, jewellery factories.

By the 1700’s, chandeliers were being produced in Jablonec, as were glass stones for the jewellery trade. The first recorded showing at a trade show in Prague of pressed glass beads was in 1829. By 1850, glass beads were being produced by the millions, and exported all over the world. The owners of these bead factories were the German glassmakers, who had invented the costume jewellery industry, and had made a name for themselves as the finest Austrian crystal glass producers in the world. Swarovski is one name brand that comes to mind.

The Napoleanic Wars of the early 19th century changed the political face of Europe, with both Bohemia and Venice added to the Austrian Empire between 1815 and 1866. Competition between these two regions had always been fierce. Becoming part of the same empire did not change a thing and competition between the two regions continued to be as fierce as ever. In the face of this competition, Czech bead makers tried something new that allowed them to expand their markets. Bohemian “sample men” canvassed Europe and returned with new design ideas. It was a novel experiment. These men travelled from country to country from Africa, to Japan and Tibet asking people what kind of beads they wanted. Then, they returned to Bohemia with sketches and descriptions of these new beads. It was an astounding success. The demand for beads grew and production increased. At this point, both Czech and Venetian bead makers were turning out similar products, but close examination has shown a variety of differences both in style and use of colour. These are discussed in Peter Francis Jr.’s book The Czech Bead Story.

The Bohemians and Moravians modern day Czech became known for their moulded and facetted beads. The knowledge of cutting techniques was a holdover from the Bohemian garnet Industry.

The Bohemians and Moravians specialised in imitating beads and bead materials. During the 19 century Indian agates and carnelians as well as organic materials such as cowrie’s shells, bone, were copied in glass and traded in Africa. The economics of this are fascinating, since rge glass reproductions were manufactured and distributed more cheaply than beads, made of the original and sometimes expensive natural materials.

By the 1860s, the Czech bead industry had surpassed its rival, Venice. About the same time, manufacturers developed special moulds and machines that allowed mass production of moulded pressed glass beads, so thousands of identical beads could be produced cheaply and quickly.  The mechanically shaped beads were a real innovation in terms of glass making history, as little had changed technically for many centuries. These pressed beads were not made around a traditional glass mandrel, but instead a rod forming the hole was pushed into the mould, and this meant that the hole could theoretically be placed in any position and multiple holes could be introduced. The moulds allowed complex shapes to be made and by making use of patterned canes, or the glass rods fed into the machine, the resulting beads could be elaborately coloured, giving them a slightly random appearance, even if the shape was exactly the same.

The only limiting factor was process of manufacturing the moulds, which was both difficult and precise. Cottage crafters were given several moulds for each bead press and turned out beads to order for their local factory. Venice continued to concentrate on handmade glass beads, while the Czechs became masters of pressed glass. Both regions, however, remained innovative and continued to perfect and improve every form of bead making.