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Tips for Sorting and Identifying Beads

Help! They’re all Black!

by Darlynn Lydick.

I have been the recipient of many bags of mixed beads in the last couple of years. Most of the time, with decent lighting, identifying beads had never been an overwhelmingly difficult task. That all changed when an incredibly large and diverse bead collection crossed paths with two novice bead hounds.

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At least a hundred thousand beads of all types were mixed and loose in sagging cardboard boxes. Many strands were not labeled. All the beads were at least 30 to 35 years old and had been in storage for years. Box by box, strand by strand, bead by bead, we began sorting and identifying our beads.

One particular bag I remember was filled with hundreds of black beads. At first glance through the wrinkled, dusty plastic bag, they appeared to be quite similar, despite their varied sizes. At a second glance, I knew I needed to get my glasses and a better lamp.

I hope you find this compilation of tips useful in sorting the assorted and identifying the unlabeled. Each tip plays an important role in bead identification, in no particular order.

You’ve Got to See

Get a good lamp. A bright desk lamp or magnifying light will make it easier to identify patterns, textures, and other identifiable markings on any bead. A jeweler’s loupe or magnifying glass will help you see specific details close up.

Sort by Color, Shape or Size

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Simple sorting is probably the best place to begin, especially if you have a variety of beads mixed together. Start by making piles of like-colors, shapes or sizes using a towel on a tabletop (this keeps them from rolling around) or use the floor if you have solid-colored carpet.

Simplifying your surroundings lets you focus more on the bead color itself. Sitting on an ornately-patterned Oriental rug is not going to make sorting easier, especially if you spill some!

Check the Temperature

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One of my favorite ways to get a clue about what type of substance a bead may be is to take its temperature. Give all your beads a few minutes without handling them. Then, pick them up and feel how warm or cold they are. Closing your eyes for a minute may even help to increase your tactile skills.

Cold beads are usually stone, glass, metal or shell. Materials that feel closer to room temperature (or warm quickly in your hand) include amber, wood, plastic, bakelite, nut, bone and ivory.

Compare Sounds and Weights

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While you are handling the beads for temperature, use the opportunity to hold a few of the same kind of beads. Do they feel heavy or light? Black buffalo horn beads will feel much lighter than black onyx beads of the same size.

What sound do they make when jiggled in your hand? If you listen closely, you may be able to hear the difference between a handful of lapis and a handful of lapis-colored glass. You can also use some confirmed beads to compare for weight and sound.

Finish and Uniformity

I found in the identifying process that my bag of black beads had beads of several different materials, each kind with its own finish. I had preliminarily sorted by size, color, and shape; then by temperature, sound, and weight. Examining the finishes brought me even closer to completing my task.

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The beads with the highest gloss turned out to be onyx, while several also-shiny beads turned out to be vintage glass. They had just a bit of a luster to them, but in the end, it was the uniformity of the shape that gave them away. There was a small crest on each bead near the holes. Once I started identifying the glass beads and pulling them from the pile, it was easier and easier to separate them. They were identical.

Drilling and Carving

The way beads are carved or drilled also gives clues to what material it might be. For instance, ivory beads will always be more finely carved than bone. You may see nicely-carved bone beads, but you will rarely see ivory that is rough and rustic in its carved details.

Look for clues around the holes: stones may show wear or in the case of the onyx, it had small chips around the holes. Glass beads also have a light, powdery look to the inside of the hole if they ve been drilled. If the glass is transparent, you can usually see the faint frostiness of the drill-hole from the side of the bead that is not drilled.

Tests and Sacrifices

Sometimes you get to the end of the identifying process and you still have some beads that stump you. There are a few household tests you can perform. A cotton swab with fingernail polish remover can separate natural coloring from color-enhanced or dyed beads (but can also change the finish on some natural beads, so be careful).

Hands-On Fun: Sacrifice Beads

Running a bakelite bead under hot tap water for a couple minutes will produce a carbonic acid smell, while plastic does not. You will know what carbonic acid smells like if the bead is truly bakelite, I promise!

Bravest of all, would be to get some heavy-duty pliers and really sacrifice a bead by breaking it (do this with a heavy paper towel over the sacrifice, so fragments don t fly). The inside of the bead offers yet more clues: Is the inside the same color as the outside? Does it crumble or break off in flakes? Does it look natural or man-made?

History and Resources

Remember to use all your resources. Although many of our beads were not marked, a good number of them were still marked with the identifying tags from the original wholesaler. We were able to identify many of our black beads as black jade (nearly impossible to find these days) because we also found boxes of strands with the original tags still on them.

We also consulted with the original designer from time to …