By Shawna Kulpa
When many people think of beads, they likely think of colorful resin or glass spheres that can be strung together to create simple, basic jewelry. That’s how many jewelers get their first introduction to beading. But some jewelers aren’t content with the beading status quo. Instead, they strive to do more with their beaded creations and push the limits. This month, we take a look at two of those artists. When they weren’t content with the bead options available to them, they simply decided to start creating their own. The results? Spectacular one-of-a-kind creations that no one could dismiss as basic beading.
She did it on a lark. In 1981, Gloria Danvers was working with a clothing designer in Miami when she saw an ad from a beading store looking for someone who could design jewelry. “Business in Miami was slow during the summer, and I was young and thought I could design,” she recalls. “They saw something they liked and hired me.”
She was one of four designers working in the store. Customers came in to order jewelry to be made for them, or they’d bring in old pieces to be redesigned. “I would take apart the jewelry and get it ready to be redesigned, and I saw some extraordinary things,” Danvers says. The experience also taught her how to assemble jewelry. “When you take something apart, you learn how to put it together. It was an incredible education.”
She worked at the store for a few years, falling in love with beading before she finally decided to go out on her own. At first, she had no problem sourcing top quality beads for her jewelry designs. “There was so much good quality stuff back then,” she says. “The beads were drilled so beautifully.”
But over time, she started noticing a drop in quality. “I wasn’t satisfied with what I was finding on the market,” she says. “Back when I started, beads were laser drilled so the holes were really nice and perfect. Now, a lot of overseas beads are punch drilled so the holes are uneven.”
So she decided to make her own, which not only guaranteed better quality, but also pushed her creatively. “If you’re making your own, there’s always a way to create something unusual,” she says.
Initially she worked with a range of different materials to create the beads for her jewelry, until a special order led her to what would soon become her favorite.
“I had a client that was in the September 11th towers crash, and her neck had been damaged so she couldn’t wear anything heavy,” Danvers recalls. “I found polymer clay and discovered that I could make big statement pieces that were super light. Polymer clay is a great way to create a great look, light. And you can set stones in it. It suited my needs perfectly.”
Excited by the versatility and lightness of the material, Danvers started experimenting. “There really wasn’t too much of a learning curve,” she says. “It’s the most versatile material I’ve ever used. Whatever your mind can conceive, you can do.”
Not that there weren’t a few pitfalls along the way. She notes that there are some types of polymer clay that can’t be used for jewelry, and that not all polymers have the same firing temperature. “I also found that some polymers couldn’t stand up to what I wanted, such as being cut into very thin slices—they can be brittle.”
One thing she found particularly exciting was discovering that she could sculpt the material into an endless array of shapes. “I started sculpting with it, things such as animals. Once you put a hole through it, it becomes a bead.”
That’s another thing she loves about the medium—the ability to drill it. “You can drill it anywhere you want, wherever it’ll hang the best,” she says.
As easy as she finds polymer clay to work with, she cautions that to really find design success with it, you need to understand the mechanics of the material. “Working with the gravity of metal or a gemstone is not the same as when you are working with polymer clay. You can’t always depend on the weight to give the necklace the shape it needs; conversely, simply because a piece is light does not mean that it is going to stay where you put it,” she explains. “If you’re trying to create a style but don’t understand the mechanics, you’ll never make a good piece of jewelry.”
When creating a bead, Danvers first molds the clay into the shape she desires. To create the hole in the bead, she’ll thread a rod through it. “Knitting needles are good to use because the sharp ends are great and they don’t distort the shape,” she says. “You can gauge the hole size by the metal rod you use. The material doesn’t shrink.”
She then fires the bead, with rod intact, for about a half hour at 260°F (127°C). Once it’s done, she simply pulls out the rod and allows the bead to cool. Although the holes can also be drilled once the beads have been fired, she finds it easier to create them earlier in the process. “Small beads, in particular, are hard to drill,” Danvers says.
While she can create individual beads with ease, the process becomes more involved when she has to create multi-layered beads. Her Monarch Butterfly necklace offers a good example of this.
The Monarch Butterfly neckalce. To create her butterfly wing beads, Danvers first has to imagine how the finished product will appear, and then work backward to achieve it.
“You lay [the design] down with your mind’s eye, how you’ll place the layers on top of each other. I know what I want the finished product to be, and then I work backward to create it.” It’s a fairly involved process, and Danvers estimates that it can take two days to create all the beads needed. “You don’t want to ever drink while you’re doing this,” she jokes.
She begins the process by creating each individual cell within the wings as a long strand of clay. For the initial orange cell, she kneads the material with her hands, squeezing it around until it’s about a foot long and about half the diameter of her thumb. She lays it down on her workstation before creating a thinner strand of black clay, which she then flattens outs and wraps around the orange strand. She repeats the process until all of the cells for the wing have been created, resulting in a partially triangular stack of clay, which she then slices into to create the individual wings.
“You’re laying all of these pieces on top of each other so that when you slice it, you get [the wing forms],” she explains. “You’re working in lengths, but thinking in slices.”
To achieve the indent seen in butterfly wings, Danvers pushes her thumb into the side of the wing. She then pinches the top end of each wing where it would be joined to the butterfly’s body. The last step before firing is to pierce each wing with a needle to create the holes.
Each of the butterfly wing beads begins life as a stack of clay, with each of the colored cells shaped and incorporated into the stack. The clay is then cut into slices, which Danvers pushes her thumb into to create the indents. The ends of the wings are then pinched and needles inserted to create the holes before firing.
Another thing Danvers likes about polymer clay is that it’s really forgiving. “If I find that I put the hole in the wrong place, I repack it with more clay, fire it, and then drill the new hole. And if you coat the inside of the original hole with liquid polymer before you pack it, you wouldn’t even know that there had been a hole there. It’s as strong and sturdy as it was before.”
To achieve a high polish on her polymer beads, Danvers uses a fluffy muslin buff to polish each bead individually before glazing them with an acrylic glaze. “It stands up well,” she says. “My pieces aren’t cheap, but I look at them as something you’ll have all of your life. You want to make it as well as you can so if you see it in 50 years, you’ll still be proud of it.”
While a student at Kon-Kuk University in South Korea, So Young Park had to take a metalsmithing course…and she promptly fell in love with the medium. But the idea of using her metalsmithing skills to create wearable jewelry pieces didn’t come about immediately.
“When I attended school, I was more focused on making non-functional jewelry and sculptures,” she says. After she graduated and began her career as a full-time artist, she says that her “work style was more toward sculptural forms, focusing on concept and expression.”
But as she developed as an artist, she started looking at ways to combine functional parts for wearable jewelry with elements from her sculptural pieces. Park began crafting jewelry designed to adorn the body, but eventually felt a bit limited by her materials.
“There are limited colors in metals, and I wanted to add some color to my work,” she explains.
Beyond the Sea I necklace by So Young Park
She started looking around at materials that could achieve this, trying out resins, plastics, and organic materials, such as dried seeds. Eventually she tried beads and knew she could stop her search: She had found the material.
She introduced gemstone beads to her work in 2009 and was thrilled with the colorful flair they added. But after a few years, she started thinking about making her own beads.
“I hand fabricate my jewelry, and I wanted to have my own style,” she says. “I could buy production beads, but that could make my work easier to copy. I wanted to make my own and keep my identity as a jewelry artist.”
To make the beads for her Beyond the Sea I necklace, Park cuts square shapes out of silver sheet, hammers them in a dapping block, and then solders them together before oxidizing them and applying 24k gold leaf.
When she began designing her beads, it was important to Park that they be unique and created in her own signature style, which she sees as a blend of Eastern and Western styles. She started experimenting, making all of her beads from sterling silver, frequently adding 24k gold leaf for color and contrast. She engraved them and added decorative elements, such as freshwater pearls. Eventually, she realized that she could create jewelry pieces where the beads were not just accents of a larger look, but the focus of the design.
Take her Bell Flower necklace, for example. Measuring between 16 and 19 inches in length, the necklace features a series of her hand-crafted beads. The largest, at the center of the necklace, measures 1 inch in diameter; the rest of the beads gradually taper to the back of the piece. Each bead comprises six discs that Park punches out of silver sheet. She hammers each disc into a half-dome shape before folding them into an oval.
Bell Flower necklace
Once each disc is perfectly formed, she solders them together at several contact points to form the round bead. After oxidizing the discs, she applies gold leaf to some of them and solders posts in place for the pearls. To finish the piece, she feeds a silver wire through the hollow spots in the center of each bead, adding commercial spacer beads that she’s also oxidized.
“I don’t want the silver wire to show,” she explains. “Plus, it lets me add space between the beads so they don’t scratch each other.” It can be pretty time-consuming work—Park estimates that the necklace can take up to a week to complete. “Each part has to be hammered, oxidized, and have gold leaf applied,” she says. “It looks simple, but each element takes a long time to do.”
Although she never expected to find herself making beads, Park believes that this experience has allowed her to meld her two artistic desires.
“I want to be a little more different, I want to work on more artistic jewelry, but I also want to make wearable jewelry, something practical,” she says. “This combines the artistic with the technical, functional stuff, allowing me to sculpt both artistic and more commercial and functional jewelry. And now it seems like I’ve created my own style of beads as part of my jewelry.”