Vintage Beads: The Truth about Patina, Imperfections and Limited Quantities
Most vintage beads are perfect and flawless and gorgeous. But some have evolved over time and show the wear and tear of the years. A few have suffered the dings and bangs of their journey, and that’s ok. We don’t love them any less.
Let’s talk about patina...
As a kid during the holidays, my Mom would drag out the old padded box of flatware and I’d polish, polish, polish until each piece gleamed in the sun. I would scoff at the unsightly brownish-greenish uneven flecks of…. well, whatever that stuff was. All I knew was, it HAD to go. With a little elbow grease, it was gone.
Today, I’m looking at my newly made sterling silver and shiny copper bracelet that’s as brilliant as a fresh penny off the Mint assembly line, and I’m dreaming of how fabulous it will look in 100 years — all tarnished and darkened. It reminds me of the time I bought a lamp at a yard sale, and took it home to buff it to shiny glossiness only to wish I had left it alone. Or the time I studied old coins that were worn and darkened, admiring their color and age.
Leaning toward the dark side
Patina is actually a film of oxidation on the surface of metal, caused by exposure to the elements: wind, rain, heat, cold and more. Now, I realize your bracelet isn’t exposed to much wind and rain, but just the air alone can cause patina to form over time. The sterling bracelet in your jewelry box that got a lot of wrist action in 1984 is now a rich dark brownish black, and you may or may not love its transformation. Often during my vintage bead trunk show days I would be asked why some metal beads were uneven in color and seemed splotchy. Or why some of the beads on the strand were dark, and some shiny. My answer was that in bags or boxes of beads that were stored for a period of years, certain areas were more exposed to the air, meaning that the beads in the top of the bag were exposed to the air and the beads at the bottom were more protected. This caused patina to form more on the surface beads and less on the bottom dwellers.
Becoming old NOW!
Today, the antiqued look is popular with the jewelry crowd. We’ve got tricks up our sleeve to instantly age our beads, wire and components to give it a flavor of being a relic or heirloom, something to be cherished and appreciated. Old things are held in an atmosphere of appreciation and wisdom and are meant to be saved and respected. There’s a hint of history, of vintage story telling and perhaps a fascinating meaning behind antique jewelry. While today we may insert a picture of the family dog, or maybe the smiling face of Cruella DeVille to make a kitschy locket, the lockets of long ago held pictures of beloved family members gone off to war, or a lock of hair of a lost loved one. You have to respect the sincerity of aged treasures. We do our best to capture the charm, glamor and intrigue of old jewelry in the designs we create today.
Well, how do you do it? You’ve got some options. I wrote an article about How to Oxidize Your Own Jewelry a few weeks ago. In there you’ll be able to decide how to add a patina to your project, be it jewelry, metal art or otherwise. You can experiment with tones of patina ranging from gray to brown to black, and then with a blast of heat you can have a rainbow of color. Mix and match them, and whoa… you’ve got magic!
Now lets talk about imperfections… What??
The quest for impeccable, flawless, immaculate jewelry is for people who should just buy machine made. Yes, we want to chose beads that are the best quality, and we want to use outstanding findings, wire and stringing materials… but it can be a bit ridiculous. Recently I noticed a person carefully culling a tray of vintage beads. They were German 1950-ish and had a funky shape to them, with a hole at each end like a connector. The style of bead is called a porphyry, where the glass is clear, and then there are usually two colors (one of which is usually opaque white) and those two colors are injected into the bead while the glass is still in a semi-molten stage. This makes a swirl inside the bead and each one is a little different. She was eliminating the ones that weren’t perfect.
Two piles of beads
I hovered. She asked my opinion on the two piles. For the one that was “perfect” I said, “Dull.” For the one that was “imperfect” I said, “Character”. She scowled at me. I just figured, well...take the ones that you feel are perfect, and leave the others for someone who will enjoy their unique qualities. A bead that isn’t symmetrical isn’t flawed...its just a different shape. In my head I was thinking: That girl is going to go home and make the most boring jewelry known to man. :-) It reminded me of another time I came across an old bag of stuff at a junk sale here in California. This store had all kinds of stuff, and a fellow beader tipped me off that there were beads to be unearthed. The bag contained about 150 quarter sized 1920’s nail heads, black in color and hexagonal in shape. The designers initials were on the back stamped into the glass, and the front had an intaglio honey pattern all over it. Really different. I was thrilled, but the other beader I was shopping with told me to toss the bag back onto the pile and look for real beads, like crystals. She said it was the small chips and imperfections that made them ugly to her. I told her in humor that it was that comment that made her ugly to me, and she’s reminded me of that comment since and uses it as an excuse to tell me that my bead taste is that of stinky cabbage soup (which I also like, ironically). To each his own. But I think I got the better beads.
The mark of handmade
Hand crafted beadwork shows the mark of the maker. In the way you hold your pliers, bend or twist metal, or in the way your tension is when you weave seed beads… the way you choose to knot, crimp or tie off your ends. AND… what about when a piece of jewelry becomes slightly “flawed” over time. A bead chips or God forbid: patina forms! Oh NO! I ask you: Does the art world throw away Venus because her arms fell off? No. How about the Sphinx without a nose. Do we toss him into the recycle bin? Ok, I’m getting silly, but you know what I mean. Vintage beads at times have scratches, chips, dings, dents and I believe many of you would agree that it gives that bead character. Yes? So what am I getting to here?
Be open minded when buying your vintage pieces. They’ve been around the block and have earned their state of being due to primitive practices, bumpy travels or the passage of time. Enjoy them for what they are.
“Old things have their own thumbprint. They’re a testimony to time and how time changes. We need to recognize and appreciate them for what they are. Old things are special. And I should know. I’m 91.” Bob Pattesfield, smiling museum curator