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Applying Patina to Reproduction Trade Beads

The beads made by Teton Trade Cloth are

manufactured in the same way that old trade beads were made, by hand, each bead is unique and essentially a work of art. In the eyes of a person who can appreciate the amount of skill and labor that has gone into creating a handmade trade bead, the variation in size and decoration is a mark of its beauty. There are a few different techniques used in the manufacture of glass trade beads that we will cover as a means of background and better understanding.

Wound beads are the most common type of trade bead, made by wrapping molten glass around a metal wire “mandrel”, one of the easiest way to recognize these beads is that you can often see the spiraling in the glass from the winding and if they have colored designs they often look painted, the color is applied by adding colored molten glass to the base color. Examples of this bead are skunk beads, Lewis and Clark beads, Ambassador beads to name a few.

Drawn beads are made by creating a large form of glass and often have different colors rolled into them and are formed into a large “blob” that might initially appear like a huge bead, then the molten glass is “drawn” or pulled into a “cane” of much thinner glass. The cane is cut and then ground into a bead shape. Examples of this bead includes chevron beads, Bohemian Facets AKA “Russian Blues” are also drawn and then have facets that are ground into the bead. These are amongst some of the most expensive beads as they have so much handwork involved in their manufacture.

Pressed beads are made by adding molten glass to a metal wire “mandrel” and then pressed in a mold. Examples of this type of bead are beads that are pressed into an irregular shaped bead and prosser beads.

Trade beads hold the fascination of people all over the world. Not only are they still used by Native People in North America in the making of traditional clothing, they are also heavily used still in Africa by native Africans in their traditional culture. Add to this demand that beads are highly desired by people interested in History and collecting pieces of history because these beads were so widely dispersed over the globe and the history and treasure that they represented to so many people. Due to this demand there is a global interest from collectors for these items. This demand has steadily increased the price of real antique trade beads. As with any item that is in high demand, reproductions are bound to be made, sometimes items are reproduced so that people can own and poses an item that is like the antique version for a fraction of the cost. In some cases, they are manufactured to intentionally fool buyers. The beads are often aged and degraded to take on the look of age and can fool even the experts. In the end, significant education and study needs to be undertaken to be able to buy antique trade beads that will give you the sense of confidence that you are making a sound investment.

If you are looking to add a patina to reproduction trade beads in order to give a well-worn look for a reproduction piece, here are some techniques that can be used to achieve this effect. I would encourage readers to use this information with integrity and not to use this information to fraudulently misrepresent new beads as antiques and only use this information as a means of achieving a desired outcome for your artwork and projects.

A note about patina. The best patina is achieved by applying a coating and then almost nearly removing that coating and doing this over and over again until the piece achieves a “depth” of colors and films of various transparency as to achieve a look of build up of aged, dust, oils, etc. The easiest way to spot bad patina is when it has been rushed by the person who applied it, if the patination is applied it too heavy and the person didn’t use enough variation of color, removal and reapplication, it looks heavy, overapplied and fake.

Step 1

Cleaning the beads. The glass needs to be clean so that the patina can adhere properly to the glass. This can be done with a simple wiping with a damp cloth moistened with glass cleaner. As mentioned above, beads are formed on a mandrel, a metal wire that is coated in a white powder that allows the beads to slide off the wire after the glass is cooled. The fastest way to spot a newly made bead is to look for this releasing agent. New beads that have not been strung and worn over time, may still have some of this agent inside. The stark white powder is easy to spot and needs to be removed. I use a wire and a bowl of water to remove the releasing agent, anything that can scrub the inside of the bead will work, including but not limited to a pipe cleaner, dowel, etc.

Step 2

Abrading (sanding or otherwise scratching) the surface of the bead. Typically old beads will be worn, sometimes because they rub against each other, sometimes they have been worn by the elements. As an example, on the coast of Washington, Alaska and British Columbia, it is still possible to find “Russian Blues” on the beach, as such large quantities of these beads were sent over in wooden kegs for Russian traders to trade with Native people of the NW region to get otter hides. If a ship sank, or a keg was lost at sea, these beads often show up tumbled by the ocean. For this purpose, we want to use sandpaper. Depending on the amount of wear you want to show, you can use anything from 60 grit (coarse) to a finer grit like 120. I believe that a variation of grits applied randomly and somewhat unevenly provides the best result.

Step 3

Application of color. Applying the patina is achieved by using high quality paints that will adhere to the surface scratches as well as the natural ridges that is sometime created in the winding of the glass around the mandrel. For this demonstration I have used a brown and black paint that I have mixed together with a very wet paint brush. The paint is applied to the beads and wiped off with a dry cloth, damp cloth or abrasive pad, any and all of these can be used to achieve a different effect. It is the repeated application and removal of patina that give the finish a deep and authentic appearance. One thing to consider when creating patina is to consider how, on an antique item, the patina would have accumulated. In this case, beads that were worn as a necklace or choker on the skin would have built up oils from the skin and sweat, dust in the air would later accumulate on that oil and when dried, form a film. Over years this would build up, but it would also wear off on places like the high spots as it rubbed against a dry surface or became wet

. These are important things to consider when thinking about patina. Continue the application and removal process until you have achieved the desired look.

Step 4


At Teton Trade Cloth, we have spent considerable time researching and working alongside the bead artisans to recreate the most beautiful and realistic reproductions possible.We hope that you enjoy using them as much as we have enjoyed making them available again

.Please share your creations with us on social media using the #tetontradecloth hash tag.

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