How do you know what you're getting? Knowing the artist, even online, is important.
While the word lampwork implies high value beads, what you may actually getting is an unannealed, stress-riddled and highly fragile mass-produced bead from someone in India, China, or even California. I remember when I first started making jewelry, before I knew about lampwork, I found a set of five beautiful cobalt blue decorated glass beads on eBay. They were stunning, and - back then - I'd never seen glass beads with surface decoration before. When they arrived they had a thick grey coating on the inside of the holes. The beads were made of transparent glass, so that dusty stuff, that was coming off on my hands, was also making the beads dirty and cloudy. I know now that it's called bead release, so the beads come off the metal mandrels on which they're made, but then I just thought it was gross and I got a bead reamer to clean it out.
Every single bead - all five - broke in half.
Now I haven't been making jewelry forever, but even if the first bead breaking was because I didn't know what I was doing, the fifth certainly wasn't. It was when I tried to figure out what happened that I first learned about lampworking and why my beads had cracked.
When artists make a glass bead, adding molten glass upon slightly cooled glass, then possibly poking, prodding, and adjusting the glass, you introduce both thermal and physical stresses into the glass. Annealing beads brings the beads to a uniform temperature high enough to release those stresses (without remelting the glass) and then cools the bead down slowly enough so the whole bead cools at the same rate. A bead cracking in half is evidence of thermal shock caused by not being annealed.
That's just one downside of mass produced glass beads that look like handmade lampwork. Other downsides include possible toxic chemicals in the bead release, beside the fact that any dried bead release is a respiratory hazard (think miner's lung). And the bead holes are often rough and sharp, which can cut stringing material - if not you!
Now, I will admit that there are some mass produced beads out there that are very lovely, you can never be sure how it was manufactured, if it was annealed, and if it has been properly cleaned, unless you can ask the artist that made it, or preferably, see that artist at work. While it is everyone's own choice to determine if mass produced lampwork beads are worth even a low price, there are reasons handmade lampwork beads, which can be attributed to individual artists, can be so valuable.
First and foremost, you can ask the artist how they're made. The kind of glass they used, how they were formed, whether they were annealed, and how they were cleaned. Second, self representing artists have to rely on quality rather then quantity to generate business, so artists take great pains to perfect their craft, create rounded bead holes that are gentle on stringing materials, carefully heat and reheat the bead after manipulating it to reduce the total stress in the bead, even before carefully annealing it in a digitally controlled kiln and then carefully cleaning the bead release safely to prevent any hazard or annoyance to a jewelry artist or collector.
If, by some amazing chance, you have an opportunity to pick up a set of destash or orphan lampwork beads from a reputable artist - jump on the opportunity! I did! This is your best chance to get high quality beads for an amazing price. While not every bead in the set will be in your color palette, or might not be as vibrant or consistent as you would ordinarily like, for anywhere from half to one-tenth the normal price of a bead, you can afford to make the best of the great beads and use any blah beads for a giveaway or promotion. Even if you spend $0.25 per plain spacer bead, $1-2 for a small decorated bead, and up to $5 for a focal, you'll be getting a mind-boggling deal.
The question remains - if a lampwork vendor looks reputable, even says their beads were made in the US, how do I know for sure if I'm getting high quality handmade beads.
1) How many beads do they have in their shop? If there are hundreds and hundreds of listings perhaps they've hoarded their stash for years and years, but more likely the're sourcing their beads from a stable of factory lampworkers. Over a thousand listings in their Etsy shop for lampwork beads? Please just consider how those were likely to have been made.
2) How many different styles do they have? Even if an artist specializes, their artistic spirit is - more than likely- going to force them to experiment with color, embellishment, and size, if not texture and shape, too. If a store has lots of the same kind of bead - sets and sets of beads with the same kind of decoration all the same size. Yeah. Chances are that's mass produced.
It would be uncharitable of me to deny that some of the mass produced lampwork out there is not machine made, but made by a talented woman working in a factory, even with their lower wages, they increase their productivity by specializing in bead designs. That's how they get so consistent. But, at that point, when the creative spark is gone, I don't think you can call that art anymore. So, honestly, why bother at that point? Just because it's inexpensive doesn't mean it's valuable, especially if it's going to break apart.
I know I won't have convinced everyone, but if you didn't know much about lampwork before, I hope you feel better informed now. Sometimes, if you really love something, you just need to invest in the real thing. You'll love it more in the end!
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