When you look at the breathtaking work created by seed bead artists, it’s hard to believe they started with something that can sit comfortably on the head of a pin. But each seed bead is really a tiny work of art in itself when you realize how they’re made. Adrienne Gaskell, Mindy Brooks, and Nancy Cain have visited seed bead factories and seen the process in person. They share this inside look at how seed beads are made.
ABOVE: Seed bead components from Nancy Cain’s Structural Peyote Stitch.
Adrienne Gaskell has toured the Toho Beads seed bead factory in Hiroshima, Japan, five times, and as recently as 2019. She says, “I could go on and on about Toho Beads. Over the years, I have become good friends with the Yamanaka family as well as many of their employees. I call them my Toho family. I cannot express enough their dedication to their company as well as their generosity in everything they do, said Gaskell, a well-known teacher, artist and president of the American Kumihimo Society.
Like most people who get to visit the factory, Gaskell was part of a tour. She traveled with Tambrook Beads & Japan Adventures. Most factories only allow tours for organized groups rather than individuals.
Gaskell was able to visit the factory and production area. The factory managers explained the entire process of making beads from the fine quality sand required to make glass to packing and shipping the final product. Toho did however keep the building where Aiko beads are made off limits to protect proprietary processes.Cut glass rods in storage. Photo courtesy: Nancy Cain
According to Gaskell, the seed-bead making process is not very automated by today’s standards. “Most equipment is from the 1950s and is kept in working order by skilled, long-term employees. Bead making requires a lot of hands-on work and inspection,” she said.
“I was astonished by how many steps it takes to make a bead, how many people are involved, the repeated inspections along the way to ensure the highest quality. I was extremely surprised at the amount of time that goes into making beads,” Gaskell said.
Mindy Brooks, former editor of Beadwork, said her tour in 2004 held some surprises too. “I had no idea how seed beads were “lined” or faceted. I’ve worked with many silver-lined and other color-lined beads as well as cut beads, and it was fascinating to watch the process. It was also interesting to see how cylinder beads are made—especially the ultra-precise Aiko beads,” Brooks said. “Seed beads have been around since the 1500s, so watching the production is like watching history. Not much has changed over the centuries.”
Bead artist and teacher Nancy Cain has toured both the Toho factory (in 2011) and the Miyuki (2007) bead factory, which is also in Hiroshima. “It is an exciting thing to see. The color mixing is done with smaller kilns. Color mixers blend a recipe of glass chunks and frit (reused beads and spillage that did not work) for a specific color in smaller kilns and then those are mixed into a larger loaf to be placed in the large kiln on an upper floor of the factory.
“The red-hot glass pours out of a hole at the bottom of the kiln with an insert for round or hex bead shape. A tube blowing air in the center of the kiln hole, allows the glass to form around it, creating the bead hole. As we moved down the stairs, we saw the long thin strand of red-hot glass extruding out of the bottom of the kiln. The strand flexes around a wooded or porcelain log. It then stretches on a conveyor belt for 30 to 50 feet at which point it is laser cut into meter long rods. It is a fast process. “The worker at the end checks the rod for internal and external sizing and then they are bundle tied for bulk storage.”Nancy with wooden storage boxes. Photo courtesy: Nancy Cain
Cain said she was surprised to learn that only one bead color and size is made at a time and they make about five years’ worth! “Of course, that bead will go through many changes from then. They need to be cut, polished and have the various finishes and coatings applied,” Cain said. Touring the two factories gave Cain an appreciation for both companies’ creations.
“I really do appreciate the difference between the two manufacturers. I try to educate students that there is not a bad bead or a good bead . . . but best bead usage for a project. The incredible Toho Aiko cylinder bead is an astounding bead. It is so perfect and the number of times it needs to recycle for that perfection is why the cost is higher. It is perfect for flat work but does not sculpt well. For sculpting, I need the slightly more irregular Miyuki Delica cylinder bead.”
Sometimes, lucky “bead tourists,” got a taste of more than seed beads. When Brooks toured the factory in 2004, they got a taste of more than beads when visiting the factory’s café. “We learned to make a Japanese egg dish called okonomiyaki,” she said.
During Gaskell’s trips, the education went both ways. Toho executives were very interested in seeing the jewelry that those on the tour created with their seed beads. “They were especially interested in jewelry we were wearing. We were told that they were looking at how well the beads held up with the wear and tear of everyday use, something they do not get to see. I was a bit disappointed when I realized they were not marveling at my gorgeous creation!”Miyuki’s on-site retail store features a rainbow of colors. Photo courtesy: Nancy Cain
The Toho factory has some gorgeous creations of its own to show off. It has three museums that were all started in the early days by the founder, current president Iwao Yamanaka’s grandfather. One museum features beadwork from around the world. One floor has a gallery featuring work by current bead artists. Another museum contains anything that relates to glass, from the earliest examples of glass making to artists from around the world and through the ages. “From Tiffany to Chihuly, and everything in between,” Gaskell said.
Gaskell came away from the tours with samples of the newest products and a new appreciation for their seed beads. “This had been on my bucket list for years, so I read a lot and watched many videos before visiting the factory, however, I was completely blown away. So many surprises, from the incredible amount of hands on work, seemingly endless quality inspections, to the talent and skill of the employees. Both of the factory managers are chemists!”
“They even asked our advice on naming seed beads. Kim Tamarin of Tambrook Beads is the one who came up with the name of Aiko beads, named after the founder’s wife. I named the Toho glass pearls, Sakura Pearls, after the beloved cherry blossom flowers in Japan.”
Adrienne Gaskell: “I can never find the color of red seed beads I would like, however, after seeing the amount of pure 24 karat gold required to make red glass, I understand why. As far as shapes I love teardrop shapes because they work so nicely into kumihimo braids, so I would design a bead that resembles the organic shape of a top drilled keshi pearl.”
Mindy Brooks: I like rich, dark matte colors, so my personal bead factory would emphasize that palette. As far as shapes, I think the bead producers already have that covered.
Nancy Cain: I think I would make the precious metal plated sterling silver seed beads in size 11 through 6 with a Picasso style coating of 24k gold and then do colors!
– Cathy Jakicic for Beadwork
Post updated April 14, 2022.
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