HOW CZECH GLASS BEADS ARE MADE
Czech glass beads have a long history of craftsmanship and are known for their high quality and intricate designs. Working with artisans in the Czech Republic, we’re re-imagining timeless molds, inventing custom colors and finishes; renewing the art of forging Czech glass beads by continuing to innovate. Our trips to the Czech Republic and the continuing experimentation in our designs have helped us to understand, and to appreciate even more, the work behind the curtains.
The time between a bead design being sent to the Czech Republic and the delivery can take from 6 to 10 months, sometimes even more!. Do you wonder what really happened in those months? The process of making Czech glass beads is very labor-intensive, it involves many steps that you may have not imagined.
DESIGNING A BEAD
Before the production starts, we send the designs to the factories. The design consist in choosing a mold, selecting the glass color and the coatings that will be applied to it. A special instruction will be made if the bead has any cuts, and/or if the coatings will be applied before and after those cuts. The design is basically a long code of numbers.
Each factory have many molds available to produce beads from, many of those molds have existed from many years ago that still are being used. If a given shape is not available, then a new mold is created. All molds have their own code number.
The raw material for making the beads are glass rods produced in the Czech Republic. Czech glass has remarkable quality, strength, and stability, with over 900 colors available. The production of glass rods is made by machine (for the transparent and opal colors) and by hand (for many of the opaque and mixed glass colors). Each color is made with minerals and chemical compounds, and some of the most expensive colors, like magenta, require gold!
After choosing the mold of the bead, we need to select the color of the glass. We use cards with all available colors. Each color has its own code, depending on if they are transparent, opaque, opal, or mixed glass. Once we select the color of the glass, the factory will use those glass rods for pressing the beads.
Coatings are chemicals that applied to the beads will give special effects to the glass like metallic, luster, AB, or Picasso finishes. All coatings have a code number, and usually we can select them from cards.
STEPS TO MAKE BEADS
To help you understand the process of making beads, we will explain the operation in 5 steps:
- Step 1: Pressing
- Step 2: Tumbling
- Step 3: Coatings
- Step 4: Fire Polishing
- Step 5: Table Cut
It is good to note that not all Czech beads go through the same steps. The main 3 categories of Czech Glass Beads are Pressed Beads, Fire-Polished Beads and Table Cuts. Each of these beads go through Step 1 and 2, and the rest of the steps are related to their level of complexity.
STEP 1: PRESSING
Pressed Machine history:
In the past, Czech beads were made manually in a very similar way as how buttons are made in the actuality. The artisans were squeezing the melted glass into molds using clamps. Usually one hand will be operating the clamps while the other handling the glass rod. An assistant would be hand-piercing holes with a metal needle. This manufacturing process was difficult and very slow.
Later on, an automated pressed machine was invented (called Matura press). This machine was designed to press beads in a faster pace, allowing more efficient production of consistent and precise beads. The machine will press 30-80 kg of glass in 8 hours, this is what they use in the actuality.
On the upper side of the machine there is an area where the glass rods are melted, heated to a temperature of approx. 900-1000 C. The glass will drip through a needle between the mold in an automatic pressing way. Both the needle and the mold have to be cooled down with water. This pressing process will mold the glass into the desired bead shape. Through a lower area of the machine, a row of connected pressed beads will slide down while the machine will partially separate them before they descend to a metal bucket.
The beads are being left for cooling in metal buckets for until the next day or more, the cooling period will depend on the size of the beads. The metal buckets prevent a rapid cooling, to avoid formation of cracks and to ensure their stability and quality.
Step 1: Pressing Beads
On this video, you can see how the beads are being pressed.
Through a lower area of the machine, a row of connected pressed beads will slide down while the machine will partially separate them before they descend to a metal bucket.
Step 2.4: Separation
On this video, you can see how the beads are being separated with a vibrating sorter.
The sorter will have at least 2 different sieves to separate the different bead shapes and sizes that were tumbled together.
STEP 2: TUMBLING
2.1 Tumbling In Wooden Hinged Barrels
As we can see on the pressing video, after the beads are being pressed, they don’t come out as a single piece, but connected in a row. Tumbling is the process to separate them into a single piece, so the extra glass fragments around the bead can come off. They use wooden hinged barrels to spin the beads depending on their size and shape for between 20 seconds to 5 minutes.
After tumbling, the beads and the leftover fragments will be separated through a vibrating sorter. The sorter will have 2 different sieves, one will allow the beads to go through, while the other, only the smaller pieces. In this way, the extra fragments and the beads are going to be separated into two different containers. The leftover glass fragments can be melted again into new rods.
2.3 Tumbling In Water
After the beads are separated from their leftover fragments, the beads are still rough, and they will need to go through another tumbling process to achieve a smooth and polished surface. This process involves adding beads, water and silica sand inside a rotating drum. The factory will mix 40-60 kg of beads in different sizes and shapes inside the same drum.
Through the tumbling, the beads continuously will rub against each other while the sand wear away the rough edges and surfaces of the beads. The variety of bead sizes inside the drum improves the speed and quality of the smoothing process. The water will facilitate the movement, carrying away debris and helping to achieve a polished finish.
The tumbling process takes place in 2 phases: matting and polishing. The matting process will take 1–2 days, but the polishing phase will take from 3 to 7 days. Beads that are going to have facets, table cut or any other process, the tumbling time will be just a few days.
While the machines are tumbling the beads, an artisan will check every day how the beads are doing, change the water, and adding whatever is needed.
2.4 Separation, Cleaning, Rinsing and Drying
Once the tumbling process is complete, the beads are removed from the drum and inspected for their quality and finish. The beads will go through a cleaning, rinsing and drying steps, to remove any residue. One more time, they will be separated through a vibrating sorter. The sorter will have at least 2 different sieves to separate the different bead shapes and sizes that were tumbled together. If the pressed beads are going to have a coating, they will go to the next process otherwise, the pressed beads are done.
STEP 3: COATINGS
Czech glass beads are famous for their intricate designs and vibrant colors. The decoration process involves adding different types of coatings, such as metallic finishes, luster coatings, AB, or coatings with special effects like Picasso finishes. We will explain one of the most common ways to apply them.
Before applying any coating, the beads need to be washed and dried, and then heated in an oven. The beads need to be hot, so the chemical can be applied evenly to the surface of the beads. Once the coating is mixed to the beads, they are left to dry on wood trays.
At this point, the color coating can’t be visible, the final color will come out after the beads go to a second round in the oven. The beads are put on metal trays and this time they are heated to a higher temperature for around 2 hours, so the coating can be properly bonded to the glass surface. One more time the beads are left to cool down, washed and dried before packing.
The unique color combinations we use in Nirvana Beads is a result of mastering this process. Through experimentation, we have learned how chemicals coatings behave on each glass color. We also have experimented applying from 2 to 3 coatings in the same bead, making this process even more complicated.
PRESSED BEADS ARE DONE
At this point, pressed beads are done and finished. When the pressed beads don’t have any coating on them, they are finalized on step 2.4 (Separation, Cleaning, Rinsing and Drying), but if those beads needed a coating, like Picasso or an AB finish, then they go through step 3 (Coatings). Pressed Beads don’t go through any cutting process, so they are never faceted, cut through or table cut. Pressed beads have the simpler process because it involves fewer steps than fire polished beads or table cut beads. Do you recognize the pressed beads in our inventory? Round beads, tribal bicones, birds, daggers, melons and drops are among the pressed beads. Those beads are not faceted or have any cut, so they get finalized on Step 3.
Recap: Pressed Beads go through Step 1 (Pressing), Step 2 (Tumbling) and most of the time through Step 3 (Coatings). They don't go through Steps 4 (Fire Polishing) and 5 (Table Cut).
Pressed beads that are going to have cuts, facets or table cuts will continue to Step 4 (Fire Polish) or Step 5 (Table cut).
STEP 4: FIRE POLISH
All beads that go through Step 4, went already through Step 1 (Pressing), Step 2 (Tumbling) and most of the time through Step 3 (Coatings). Fire Polished beads don’t go through Step 5 (Table Cutting).
In general, we think of “fire polish beads” as the small faceted round beads that we use as fillers, however, the process of Fire polishing a bead is more extensive and broader. A rondelle, per example, is a fire polished bead, the same as a Saturn. What do they have in common? All fire polished beads are faceted on the whole surface or in portion of it, that’s their distinctive. Those facets are made by machine, leaving the surface with sharp edges. The only way to make shiny those surfaces is by the use of fire.
Once a bead went through Step 1, 2 and 3, a faceting process is applied either manually or semi-automatic.
The beads are put into a grinding apparatus that holds the beads in a row. With a handler on the side, the artisan will lock the beads to the apparatus, in this way the beads will not move when they are exposed to the grinding machine. The artisan will place this apparatus towards the grinding machine. In order to create facets around the bead, the artisan has to manually change the position of these row of beads towards the grindstone. Grinding times depend on the size of the beads and the hardness of the glass. One machine can hold 25–100 beads in one row, and just one facet can take from 1 to 20 seconds. While the beads are being faceted, water is running to cool down the beads to avoid cracks in the glass.
Like in the manual process, the artisan thread the beads on to the grinding apparatus, but this time the apparatus is placed inside the machine with an automatic grinding set up. The artisan only loads the rows, the machine does the cutting and changes the position of the rows towards the grindstone. After the beads are faceted, they will be washed and dried before polishing them.
4.2 Fire Polishing
The faceting process leaves the surfaces of the beads matted, and now they will need to be polished through fire. The beads are heated in a high-temperature furnace or flame until the outer surface of the glass begins to melt and become glossy.
The beads are placed into trays or sticks that will run through an oven of 20 feet long. There is a belt in the middle that will carry all trays from one side of the oven to the end. The smaller beads will go directly into trays, and the larger beads will be inserted on metal sticks without touching the tray. Once the beads finished the time in the oven, they will cool down on metal buckets.
FIRE POLISHED BEADS ARE DONE
At this point, Fire Polished beads are done. However, there is a chance that for some beads, the firing process may not be the last step. If you have noticed our beads, they are not simple, and sometimes they carry 3 coatings in one single bead. We don't know all the secrets from the factories, and some steps may go back and forth. Each bead has their own special procedure.
Fire Polishing beads are more complex than the pressed beads, so there is more labor and time involved. Do you recognize the Fire Polished beads in our inventory? Rondelles, saturns, faceted ovals, cathedrals, crown beads and of course, the small faceted rounds we use as fillers are fire polished beads.
Recap: Fire Polished Beads go through Step 1 (Pressing), Step 2 (Tumbling), most of the time through Step 3 (Coatings) and Step 4 (Fire Polish). They don't go through Step 5 (Table Cut). All Fire Polished beads have intricate cuts and facets.
STEP 5: TABLE CUT
Table cut beads are a type of glass bead that is characterized by a flat surface on one or two sides, resembling a table. Table cut beads go through Step 1 (Pressing), Step 2 (Tumbling), most of the time through Step 3 (Coatings) and Step 5 (Table cut). They don’t go through step 4 (Fire Polishing).
The beads are placed on a metal round disk with glue on it, so they can stick to the disk. The disk with the beads will face a rotating grinding wheel, so the bead side exposed to the wheel will be cut flat. If the beads require to be cut from both sides (upper and lower) as mostly do, the artisan will do the same process but exposing this time the other side. Once the two sides have the flat cut, they will be polished with a special grinding wheel.
In general most of the table cut beads go through a coating process before the table cut, in this way, there is a contrast between the surface of the bead with the coating and the area without it.
TABLE CUT BEADS ARE DONE
At this point, table cut beads are done and finished. Table cut beads have a flat surface that some people call them "windows" because with transparent glass you can "see through". Among the table cut beads we have in our inventory are most of the hibiscus flowers, sun coins, kiwi beads and spindle beads. It is good to note that not all hibiscus flowers, sun coins and spindles are table cut. Some of those beads are only pressed, and they don’t have the distinctive flat cut surface on them.
FINAL STEP: QUALITY CONTROL, STRINGING AND PACKING
Once the beads have undergone all the necessary processes, they go through a quality control inspection. Skilled artisans examine the beads for any imperfections, ensuring that they meet the desired standards of size, shape, color, and overall quality.
All of our beads are stringed, and most of the work is done manually. They use nylon for the material, and we tell them the number of beads per string on each bead shape. Finally, the stringed beads are packaged, and prepared for shipping to our office.