The uncertain times we are living in can leave us feeling anxious because people generally prefer having a sense of control and predictability in our lives. Historically, people have comforted themselves during stressful times by carrying a protective amulet. An amulet is an apotropaic object, meaning that it is believed to turn away evil forces. Ancient glass protective eye beads from the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass are examples of this type of object. This kind of dotted glass bead can be made by melting glass in the flame of a torch, winding the molten glass around a wire, and then carefully dabbing various colors of molten glass onto the bead. We now refer to this process as flamework.
Images clockwise L to R: “Seven Star” Eye Bead (51.6.552), China, 475-221 BCE. Composite Eye Bead (54.1.143), possibly Carthage (in modern Tunisia) or Eastern Mediterranean, 600-250 BCE. Eye Bead (51.6.572), China, 399-300 BCE. Horned Eye Bead (68.6.3), China, probably 399-300 BCE.
During these days of quarantine and social distancing, lots of people are turning to creative craft processes to fill time and quiet their minds. I am a lifetime maker of things and so it has been natural for me to spend my time away from the Museum experimenting at my flameworking torch, melting glass, and creating beauty as an antidote to worry. I have been working with glass for many years, so I am comforted by the familiarity of fire and molten glass and complex pattern work. I know that for some people, the idea of working barehanded within inches of a 2000-degree flame might not sound comfortable or even safe, but as with many things, familiarity and practice teach us confidence and calm our fears.
I am attracted to glass beads and protective eye beads in particular because of their beauty and complexity, the skill with which they are made, and the human story implied by their existence. An individual bead interests me because it has a certain shape, a color, a hole through it. The hole makes it a simple mechanism. It invites the action of putting it on a string or attaching it to something. That one bead might be interesting but put it next to another bead on the string and now you have a visual relationship between the two. Use more beads and you start creating a pattern, a rhythm, something you can count and measure. Add a more complicated bead that has its own pattern and rhythm and you end up building layers of visual information. This kind of complex visual story is eye-catching and inspires me to return to my torch again and again.
The other story that interests me is the belief that an eye bead is protective. The concentric rings and dots on these beads can look like eyes and of course, we all like the idea of having someone looking out for us. But do amulets really have protective power? Whether they do or not probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they can make us feel better. I think people have created the concept of magic and superstition to deal with feelings that we can’t exactly explain and to help us feel better when we are afraid, angry, ill, or uncertain. Protection is something we are hungry for because life is uncertain and so we are comforted by the belief that wearing a protective amulet will keep us safer. A little bit of comfort is a good thing when our minds can feel overwhelmed by changing circumstances. Since beads are also lovely to look at, it makes sense to wear them for decoration as well.
Glass eye beads from all over the world and within the Museum’s collection inspire me to make my own beads and amulets which you will see below. I am grateful for the peacefulness that comes from using my skills to make something beautiful. The ancient beads made by other people confirm that my desire to make things is strongly rooted in human history and give me a sense of connectedness that is comforting when my life seems off balance. I like to think that we all have the opportunity to keep a protective eye out for each other in this world and that with time and practice life may feel safer for us again soon.
More examples of my work:
Here is a list of some books you may enjoy if you’re curious to know more about beads and other protective objects.
- Amulets: Sacred Charms of Power and Protection, Sheila Paine, 2004
- Body Guards: Protective Amulets & Charms, Desmond Morris, 1999
- The History of Beads, Lois Sherr Dubin, 2009
- Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic, Robert K. Liu, 1995
For more information on the history of glass beads, please click here.